Dáil Éireann - Volume 507 - 02 July, 1999

Adjournment of Dáil: Motion.

Minister for Finance (Mr. McCreevy): I move:

That the Dáil on its rising on 2 July, 1999, do adjourn for the Summer Recess until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 29 September, 1999.

[1070] I move this motion in the absence of the Taoiseach who is still in Northern Ireland at the peace talks.

As we approach the end of the century, the unprecedented strength of our economy is a legitimate source of national pride. The present period of high growth began in 1993-94 during a previous period of Government. The strong upward thrust has been sustained and reinforced beyond expectation over the past two years under the present Government. The recent OECD report on the economy contains a series of remarkable statements worth recording. This foremost international authority says:

The Irish economy has notched up five straight years of stunning economic performance. No other OECD member country has been able to match its outstanding outcomes in a variety of dimensions . . . This is a far cry from the Ireland of the first half of the 1980s. At first glance it is astonishing that a nation could have moved all the way from the back of the pack to a leading position within such a short period, not much more than a decade in fact . . . To recapitulate, Ireland has enjoyed yet another year of very rapid growth, low inflation, declining unemployment and external and budgetary surplus. Such outcomes are the envy of countries round the world . . . It is little more than a decade since Ireland was labelled the “sick man” of Western Europe . . . Today, Ireland is a world leader in a number of aspects of economic performance. For a number of years its economy has been termed the “Celtic tiger”, even though, following the financial crisis in Asia which began in 1997, its outcomes have clearly surpassed those of such etymological rivals in the 1990s . . . It has really only been in the past five years that the Irish economy has demonstrated peerless performance. Average output growth essentially doubled.

Mr. J. Bruton: What does “etymological” mean?

Mr. McCreevy: The Deputy will have to ask the OECD experts from whom I quote.

Mr. J. Bruton: The Minister used the word. I am only a Meath man.

Mr. McCreevy: We will send for the dictionary shortly. All this has been the collective achievement of the Irish people and of the social partners, which includes successive Governments since 1987. I am proud of the distinct and very positive contribution made by the present Government but I am also proud to have been there with my colleagues at the foundations, working with Mr. Charles Haughey, Mr. Ray MacSharry and Deputy Albert Reynolds, and with other parties at different times, to create social partnership, to negotiate massive levels of EU funding and to put the public finances and [1071] the whole economy on a sustainable path, that has subsequently enabled us to create hundreds of thousands of net new jobs and a prosperity without parallel in our history.

For the first time since independence, we are approaching full employment, with every prospect of pushing unemployment below 5 per cent within less than two years. We have substantially more people employed than at any time in our history, with close to a 50 per cent increase over the past ten years. Even since taking office in mid-1997, employment has grown by well over 100,000. We are continuing to generate substantial net new industrial jobs, and to attract a substantial proportion of high quality US investment in the European Union. Emigration has been reversed. We have had growth since 1994 averaging 7.5 per cent. Our national debt will soon be below 50 per cent of GNP and we are running a substantial budget surplus that should be more than sufficient to fund our social and infrastructural priority needs without recourse to net borrowing.

We have successfully navigated our entry into the single currency and, while Britain still continues to waver, we are for the present the only English-speaking point of the Union to be a member of that currency. That has advantages as well as disadvantages. Economically, we have been getting the best of a number of worlds. We are integrated into the huge European market. We are very competitive vis-à-vis our nearest market in the UK. In terms of investment and tourism, some of the dynamism of the US economy has been transmitted to Ireland.

Most of us can remember all too vividly the difficulties and handicaps and the demoralisation, when we started out twelve years ago . We know that our economy will only continue to be strong if we keep to the successful formula that has brought us this far. We now must adapt social partnership to the new circumstances. We cannot afford to abandon discipline on either pay or public spending. Sceptical observers will be watching closely to see how much longer we can continue to defy the known laws of economics, or if we begin to show signs of coming off the rails.

The potential and sweeping gains that we need to make, if we are to catch up with the main body of our European partners, depend on continuing our present steady course. While we now lead the countries of the periphery, we still only rank 12th out of 15 EU member states in terms of living standards by head. It is foolish to talk of having overtaken Britain, using unreal GDP figures. Our real income per head is now about 90 per cent of the EU average but we still have substantial leeway to make up.

The critical factor in sustaining momentum will be maintaining confidence. That must involve a clear determination to keep down costs, expenditure and inflation. It also involves continuing the transition to a competitively taxed economy. If we are to maintain the size of workforce that we [1072] will need, we have to lower the undue and discouraging burden of personal taxation on individuals and families at all levels of income, but especially at or below the level of the average industrial wage. We also must urgently address the child care issue from both a social equality and an employment aspect, which I see as a main priority of the next Budget. We are expecting a report of the interdepartmental committee by the end of the month.

The two main infrastructural constraints are housing and transport. We are building record numbers of houses, completing nearly 42,000 in 1998. The main answer to the housing problem is to increase supply, especially the supply of affordable housing for young people. I do not believe that the heavy-handed controls or taxes advocated in the past are the answers to the problem; they may even exacerbate it. It is the Government's firm plan to spread development around so that it is not just concentrated in and around Dublin city, perhaps to a radius of 50 miles, but that other main towns and cities around the country and their hinterland will benefit. The regionalisation of the country will help create a level playing field so that the counties of the west, the midlands and the Border can also get their fair share of development.

One of the areas in which we lag badly behind our more prosperous partners is the relative lack of an established modern infrastructure, which is still incomplete. While we are making a great deal of important progress, much remains to be done to create a satisfactory transport system by different modes that will convey people rapidly, both within and between cities, and which will bring environmental services up to the highest standards.

This Government has approved huge investment not only in roads but in public transport improvements – increasing our bus fleet, building the Luas, upgrading rail safety and extending rail commuter services. Over the summer, we will be working to finalise the national development plan, in which the European Structural and Cohesion Fund requirements will no longer be the dominating factor to the same degree. We will be concentrating on accelerating development and trying to telescope the extended delays that bedevil most long-term public projects. The new planning legislation will have a role in this, as will public-private partnerships which we now want to get off the ground.

We are transforming many of our public enterprises so that they can confidently face a new competitive environment. Given their strategic importance to the Irish economy, our objective is to enable them to thrive, whether in their existing form, in strategic alliances or turning themselves into successful commercial corporations in private ownership.

We need to remember that most public enterprises were established originally because of the absence or unwillingness of the private sector to invest in them. I am glad we will be able to [1073] give their employees, as well as members of the general public, a stake in them when their ownership is opened up.

The Government has made much progress in this area, building on what a previous Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition started in the early 1990s. Virtually all European Governments, whether of the left or the right, have embarked on this process. The attitudes of my party to this matter have never been driven by ideology.

Achieving social inclusion, side by side with a strong economic performance, is one of the Government's highest priorities. Our success in creating employment is probably the single most important instrument of social inclusion. Between 1987 and 1994, we succeeded in reducing the depth of poverty.

Having completed the programme set out by the Commission on Social Welfare, the Government has given particular priority to raising the incomes of pensioners, a comparatively neglected group in recent years, towards our target of £100 per week.

We are tackling the drugs scourge head on and have succeeded in reducing crime levels by approximately 15 per cent, with the prospect of a cumulative 25 per cent reduction by the end of our third year. The drug barons can no longer operate with impunity and are now subject to a minimum ten years prison sentence. The pushers will also be rounded up. We are giving towards law and order the resources long denied them to provide extra gardaí to bring them up to a full complement of 12,000, to provide extra prison places and to make the criminal law and the prosecution of crime more effective. A new fraud Act will make a major contribution to tackling white collar crime.

A full range of adequately funded social and community services is something to which we can now reasonably aspire. Since 1990 there have been large real increases in the funding of the health services. Numbers employed in the health sector have increased from around 56,000 to 68,000 in the period. In the past two years, for instance, funding for persons with a mental handicap has been doubled. Since coming to office we have secured an increase of 28 per cent in revenue funding and 43 per cent in capital funding in 1999 over the 1997 provision. We are committed to making further necessary improvements in both hospital and community care. Apart from the physically and mentally handicapped, we need to develop further our services for older people and to ensure that people with serious illnesses or who are in considerable pain receive treatment promptly.

Cardiac surgery facilities are being developed through a nationwide strategy which will see £16 million additional funding spent by the end of this year. New facilities are being provided at St James's Hospital and University College Hospital, Galway, with children's services being further developed at Our Lady's Hospital for Sick [1074] Children, Crumlin. With these developments, capacity for adult cardiac surgery will increase by over 50 per cent and paediatric surgery will increase by up to 40 per cent. Preparations are also under way regarding the establishment of a heart and lung transplant facility in this country, to be based at the Mater Hospital.

Since coming to office approximately £19.5 million has been made available to implement the provision of the national cancer strategy. This funding is helping to address the issue of regional imbalances in the availability of cancer treatment services outside Dublin.

The importance of children's issues to this Government is highlighted by the fact that a major national child care investment strategy, costing £28 million, was announced last December. The establishment of the social services inspectorate on an administrative basis is also an important development.

A dedicated counselling and related service is being set up to support the work of the commission we set up to inquire into childhood abuse. Improving services for older people is an important objective for the Government and this year alone a sum of £14 million is being allocated to develop capital projects in this area. Residential care units, rehabilitation, respite care and day care facilities across the country will be significantly enhanced as a result of this funding. Income guidelines for medical cards for persons over 70 were substantially improved in March of this year and the next two budgets will see a doubling of these guidelines.

Those public patients currently on waiting lists are seeing improvements brought about as a result of the significant increases in funding provided by the Government under the waiting list initiative. Last year we increased this funding by 50 per cent over the previous Government's allocation and this year we have further increased this amount to £20 million. The underlying causes of waiting lists will also be helped through the further allocation this year of £9 million to services for older people and £2 million to the continued improvement of accident and emergency services. I am pleased that March 1999 saw the first decrease in waiting lists since December 1996 when the figure dropped to 34,996, a decrease of 1,887 over the previous quarter.

More people than ever before are being treated by our hospitals. Between 1996 and 1998 there has been an overall increase of almost 38,000 in the number of in-patients and day cases treated by hospitals. In addition, in 1998 almost 1.25 million attendances were treated in out-patient departments. The OECD has commented favourably on the high productivity in Irish hospitals, and it is this Government's firm intention to ensure that hospitals continue to show the same efficiency in the years to come.

We are proud of our record in education. Resources are being particularly concentrated in areas of disadvantage, but we are making general improvements on a broad front. Access to a full [1075] secondary education and third level is being improved. It is more and more understood that continuous education is the key to a happy and fulfilled life and to the advancement of our society. With the help of private contributions, we are giving a new and more ambitious cutting edge to our scientific efforts through the science and technology development fund.

Social cohesion and social justice are essential to our concept of a successful country. Backward and impoverished societies are generally characterised by vast disparities of wealth. We did not become independent to escape from that, but the ability to spread wealth and achieve real improvements for all sections of the population depends on generating steady economic growth. The art of modern government is to foster that growth and extend its benefits to all sections of the population.

We have successfully completed the Agenda 2000 negotiations which provide a satisfactory foundation for sustaining our economic advance. The outcome was of particular benefit to our agricultural sector, which could have fared much worse. The overall reform represented an estimated gain over seven years of £395 million, with a saving to consumers of £271 million. The take-up of the farm assist scheme is gradually improving and farmers know the Government will do everything reasonable within its power to tackle exceptional difficulties and maintain the viability of family farming.

The same active approach is being shown towards our fishermen. For instance, the Minister recently negotiated a much better deal for them in Cologne on the blue whiting catch.

Ireland intends to play a fuller and more active international role, in keeping with our responsibilities as a more prosperous country. We are one of the few countries increasing rather than reducing our development aid programme and we expect it to reach at least 0. 33 per cent of GDP in 1999.

Joining Partnership for Peace as well as our agreement at Cologne to the further development of the Common Security and Foreign Policy means that we will in future be actively involved in European multinational peacekeeping operations that are based on international law.

Good Government is not just about successful policy implementation and good administration. It is also about maintaining standards and integrity in public life. All members of the Government are fully committed to that. We have instituted and co-operated fully with inquiries and tribunals. We are operating in conditions of openness, transparency and accountability that did not exist previously. There are now more rules in place than ever before to prevent the abuse of power, improper influence or the concealment of potential conflicts of interest.

We intend to publish a standards in public office Bill later this year, having canvassed Oireachtas committees for their views. Preven[1076] tion of corruption legislation will be published later this year to implement EU and OECD conventions. Local government reform will provide for annual disclosures of interests and related matters by local authority members and staff. We have also agreed to provide legislative protection for “whistle-blowers” who report serious misconduct by their members out of a sense of public duty. The position of former public servants in areas related to their work will also be properly regulated.

While eternal vigilance plays an important role in any democracy, we in this House should be wary of manufacturing scandals for political ends, based on minor faults or mistakes, or even mere allegations, in a way that has a disproportionately devastating effect on individuals who have otherwise given exemplary service to the State. I think I am not alone in the House in finding the instant ruin of individual careers and reputations arising from the ruthless pursuit of political advantage or media overkill distasteful.

Mr. Quinn: To whom is the Minister referring?

Mr. McCreevy: The vast majority of people engaged in public service are neither corrupt nor dishonest, but carry out their duties to the best of their ability for the public good. All of us make mistakes from time to time. While I pay tribute to the genuine achievements and exposures of investigative journalism, I deplore the casual broad brush exaggeration that attempts to convey the impression of congenital sleaze, idleness and freeloading among politicians. Such denigration is very far from the unglamorous truth of a lot of conscientious very hard work for long hours with, in most cases, comparatively little reward.

We will work to improve the functioning of our institutions, to engage in further constitutional reform and to strengthen the confidence of our people. All in all, we should be proud, not ashamed, of our democracy. It has weathered many storms, will withstand any challenge and is something to which our people are deeply attached.

Mr. J. Bruton: I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “do adjourn” and replace them with “until 10.30 a.m. on Monday, 5th July, 1999”.

I oppose the adjournment of the Dáil until 29 September because I believe the Dáil can play a key role in resolving the difficulties in the Northern talks. The Dáil should stay in session so that we can give legislative effect to the Government's timetable for decommissioning and the consequences of failure to meet that timetable.

Legislation can provide the necessary certainty to break the deadlock and there was speculation overnight that legislative guarantees might be given to underpin commitments on decommissioning and to set out in incontrovertible language what would happen if those commitments are not met. The concept of legislative commit[1077] ments which could not be altered by Governments without further legislation has the potential to break the talks deadlock in my view, because it will create certainty where now there is nothing more than verbal assurances.

Such legislation cannot, however, be enacted unless the Oireachtas is in session. I have, therefore, asked the Government to agree to the Dáil sitting next Monday to enact the relevant legislation. To sustain the momentum inherent in a successful talks process, it is important to enact the relevant legislation next week. I believe the argument about whether Sinn Féin speaks for the IRA or not is an interminable and unresolvable one and that it is necessary to step outside existing formulae to break this impasse. That is why we should use the route of legislation, which cannot be altered by Governments without further legislation, to set out responsibilities and consequences which are beyond doubt. Since IRA weapons are also held in this jurisdiction, any legislative guarantees should be passed by the Oireachtas and not just in Westminster. The imminence of Drumcree also argues in favour of clear assurances that such legislation be passed quickly before that confrontation is aggravated.

Last night Sinn Féin said:

Against the background [which they described] we believe that all of us, as participants acting in good faith, could succeed in persuading those with arms to decommission them in accordance with the Agreement. We agree that this should be in the manner set down by the Independent Commission on Decommissioning within the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

This language is similar to language used before by Sinn Féin on at least three occasions. Prior to the talks, all parties, including Sinn Féin and the Progressive Unionist Party, signed up to the Mitchell Principles in order to participate in the talks. One of the principles, which both Sinn Féin and the PUP agreed to in early 1997, was that they gave their “total and absolute commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations”. Then, on 24 September 1997, a resolution which was adopted in the talks and accepted by all parties including both Sinn Féin and the PUP which stated: “the resolution of the decommissioning issue is an indispensable part of the process of negotiation”. On Good Friday, 1998 all parties, including Sinn Féin and the PUP, reaffirmed their commitment to disarmament as follows:

all participants accordingly reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. They also confirm their intention to continue to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent Commission and to use any influence they may have to achieve decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in referendums North and South of the Agreement and in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement.

[1078] Those successive and repeated commitments mean that Sinn Féin and the PUP have agreed on three occasions that they will use all the influence they have to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years of the endorsement of the Agreement in referenda. In other words, both parties have already agreed three times that all the arms that belong to the IRA and the UVF will be put beyond use within a two year period ending next May.

Regrettably, neither organisation has yet put any arms at all beyond use and we are over half way through that period. While some of the earlier commitments, particularly adherence to the Mitchell Principles, were unambiguously given on behalf of Sinn Féin itself alone, last night's statement is an expression of belief in what “all of us” “could succeed” in doing. As such, it is hard to see in what direction it shifts Sinn Féin's formal position. In any event, the shift hardly warrants the term “seismic”. I find it hard to reconcile this actual language in Sinn Féin's statement with the way their position was presented to us yesterday in the media. However, I have reason to believe, that although the words used by Sinn Féin last night and agreed by them over the last two years have hardly shifted at all, that the emphasis given to their words and the body language accompanying them has given those sitting across from them in Belfast genuine reason to believe that this time something will actually happen.

Unfortunately, tone and emphasis cannot easily be translated into robust contractual language. Those of the reformed religious tradition have a different approach to the interpretation of the emphasis put on tone and language than those of us of the Roman religious tradition.

There is a real cultural difference which sometimes prevents sincere people on either side from understanding one another. Without casting doubt on anyone's sincerity, that gap could be bridged by legislation in both jurisdictions which would incorporate the two Governments' understanding of the implications of paragraphs 17, 18 and 19 of the de Chastelain report, which was published two hours ago, their understanding of what will happen if the requirements of those paragraphs are not met and their proposed mechanism for making the relevant judgments with regard to those paragraphs.

This will not remove the issue entirely from politics but it will create a legal framework of certainty and objectivity within which those judgments would have to be made. That could create the assurance needed to break the current deadlock. Furthermore, I believe that the Members of this House have a fundamental vested interest in ensuring that paramilitaries disarm. Such disarmament is required by Article 15 of our Constitution and is necessary to prevent paramilitary arms falling into the hands of criminals or dissidents. If the war is over, why do loyalist and republican paramilitaries need guns? Any viable agreement must provide a reassuring answer to that question. If the answer cannot be [1079] obtained in sufficiently robust form from available interlocutors it should be provided in legislation that applies equally and fairly to all.

For these reasons, I believe the House should not adjourn. Legislative provisions form part of the proposed settlement. The current proposal that such legislation be passed in Westminster only is not enough. Any such legislation should also be passed by the Oireachtas to underpin this solemn undertaking and give the assurance necessary to enable the Northern Ireland Executive to be set up before the weekend. The Executive should be set up before a confrontation occurs at Drumcree next Monday and the best way to ensure that this happens is for the Houses of the Oireachtas to meet next week to give legislative form to those guarantees. That is the way forward.

The mechanisms for recalling the Dáil are somewhat cumbersome and it would be better if, instead of adjourning, we allowed ourselves to meet in the normal way next Monday, as I propose, or Tuesday, to pass the relevant legislation which, I hope, the Government will soon say it wishes to see enacted in one of the parliaments. The legislation should also be passed by the Oireachtas.

During the course of exchanges this morning with regard to shareholdings in CRH by Mr. Justice Moriarty who is conducting a tribunal of inquiry into the affairs of Mr. Charles Haughey and Deputy Lowry, Deputy Gormley indicated that the Green Party had not been informed of Mr. Justice Moriarty's shareholdings in CRH. I had discussions with the Attorney General, Mr. David Byrne, last night in the course of which Mr. Byrne told me that he had informed all the party leaders. I accepted his word on that, although I have no recollection of it. Mr. Byrne also told me that he had arranged with the Taoiseach's office that they would inform the Green Party of the fact that Mr. Justice Moriarty had disclosed the shareholdings. That is what the Attorney General told me last night and the basis for what I said this morning. I have since spoken to Deputy Gormley who had also spoken, since this morning's exchanges, to the Attorney General. Just as I accept Mr. David Byrne's word, I now accept the word of Deputy Gormley that the Green Party was not informed of this. I have no reason to doubt that Deputy Gormley is a truthful person as is the Attorney General.

The Minister for Finance has set out, in reasonable terms, the successful position of the economy. He tended to mention Members from one party rather than others who were involved in creating the political conditions for this. I will not adopt that partisan approach. The foundation of our economic success can probably be attributed to a decision taken by the late Deputy Donagh O'Malley to introduce free secondary education. That, with the decisions to join the European Union and to guarantee a corporate tax rate of 10 per cent, which was taken by Deputy Desmond [1080] O'Malley, are among the foundation stones of our current success. It has nothing to do with the Minister for Finance in his current incarnation nor is it due to any action taken by me as Taoiseach. The foundations of our current economic success go back a long way. That is the nature of economic success and the current economic boom should not be used as an argument in favour of this or any other Government.

We must assure the public that the conditions necessary for continued economic success will be maintained. They are predictability of political decisions and efficiency. The predictability of the corporate tax position in Ireland, which is guaranteed by all the main parties, is one of the key reasons for our success.

Mr. Quinn: Hear, hear.

Mr. J. Bruton: If any party in opposition were to propose to change it, our economic position would be undermined. All parties are entitled to credit for this. Membership of the EU requires Irish Governments to adopt a pro competitive policy with regard to public procurement and the operation of State companies. Were it not for the requirements of EU membership we would not enjoy our current economic success.

The other requirement for continued economic success is efficiency and there are serious problems of efficiency in the management of the structure of our economy. The clearest demonstration of the inefficiency of the political process is seen in the combined problems of traffic and housing, as we outlined in another motion earlier this week. The traffic crisis is a symptom of failure to plan, to provide adequate public transport and to provide houses near where people work and work near where people live. Because of bad planning, people live in one place and work in another some distance away. We have no co-ordinated settlement policy and we do not have the political instruments to enforce or require such a policy to occur. While the Government will undoubtedly publish a national development plan in the near future which will contain commitments to make a large investment in infrastructure, we do not have the means to ensure that the infrastructure is used to the full.

An example of infrastructure not being used to the full can be seen by anyone who travels by train from Dublin to Maynooth, as I have done. On that journey one sees large areas of unsettled land. If one wants to guarantee that an inherently expensive rail service is used, one must ensure that people live close to the railway line.

The houses are being built perhaps two miles from the railway line and if people have a choice of driving to the station, leaving the car there on a wet day and taking the train or driving straight to work, undoubtedly they will drive straight to work and not use the train. There is no co-ordination between decisions about the provision of either bus or train services and the provision of houses close to those services.

[1081] The NIMBY and the BANANA – build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything – factors combine to ensure that infrastructure is under-used where it is provided and over used in other circumstances. Any co-ordinated development plan must ensure that all the factors necessary, not just affordable houses but also houses in which people can live a civilised life, are provided. Providing housing without child care, bus services, schools, footpaths and play areas which will be maintained in a decent condition, is not any use. For example, there are well planned parks in my constituency which become health hazards because the county council does not have the means of maintaining them. Providing parks and houses and then not maintaining the parks obviously makes the houses less habitable and makes the people who live in them more likely to object to additional houses being provided. These people say they are not being provided with adequate services as it is, so why should there be more people living beside these unmaintained parks, inadequate child care facilities, overcrowded schools, etc. Unless we co-ordinate the provision of the social facilities, which are necessary to make houses habitable as well as affordable, we will not solve the infrastructural problem.

What is wrong with the Government's approach to economic policy at present is not that it does not have the plans on paper and that it will not spend the money – no doubt it will spend the money – but that it does not have the legislative means of ensuring that all these things happen together in a co-ordinated way, and there is no political leadership. The Taoiseach is not interested in this problem and he has not taken a lead on it. When I was Taoiseach, I initiated Operation Freeflow to deal with traffic congestion by knocking together a succession of heads of Departments who hitherto had not been talking to one another in many cases. I do not make any great claims for what I have done because Operation Freeflow just dealt with traffic which is a symptom of a much wider problem. It requires the co-ordination of all infrastructural provision to make provision for affordable and habitable houses. That is the issue on which the Taoiseach should take a political lead. I hope that soon he will be able, as a result of his success today in the talks, to turn his attention for however long he remains in office to this infrastructural and settlement issue because it requires political leadership from the top. I pledge, in so far as my ambition is to occupy the office currently occupied by the Taoiseach, that I will ensure that that will be done and that the number one priority will be an infrastructural and settlement plan to ensure that there are enough houses which are both affordable and habitable for our people.

We are clearly seeing serious social bottlenecks. I acknowledge the economic success to which the Minister for Finance referred but there are bottlenecks being created by that success. For example, physically disabled people who had [1082] immense intellectual and other capacities to contribute had to picket outside Dáil Éireann and promise to stay up all night there before they could get restored to them their means of travelling to and from work. They could not get to work or college because a service which was provided for them had run out of money. The only way they could deal with that was to picket the gates of Dáil Éireann. That is an eloquent testament to the failure of our political system to respond to emerging needs.

There is a similar situation where we have provided railway lines and trains for DART and then services must be cancelled because there are not enough drivers to drive the trains. That is a political failure. FÁS has had to go overseas to get people to take up jobs. Meanwhile people like accountants, bio-chemists and teachers, who are here as refugees, may not work because the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will not allow it. That is a clear failure of the political system to respond to a real situation.

In Wexford strawberries are rotting in the fields because the farmers cannot recruit enough people to harvest them. That is a metaphor which sums up in a sense the consequences of success. To date our political system has been geared to deal with the consequences of economic failure over perhaps 50 years of statehood but it is not geared to deal with the problems of success.

Dublin Airport has one of the biggest and most expensive car parks in Ireland. People do not want to use it. They would prefer to be able to go by bus to Dublin Airport yet when a private bus operator applies to run a shuttle service between Dublin Airport and the city centre so that people will not have to leave their cars at the airport the application lies fallow on the shelves of the Department of Public Enterprise for more than a year. This is a failure of the political system to use an available means to resolve an infrastructural problem in the economy.

Anybody looking at the streets of Dublin will see that there are not enough buses, the buses are overcrowded and come together in a bunch, and the service is not available when it should be. That should not happen. There are buses, which are available all day having done their school runs in the morning, which could be used to provide services in the middle of the day but the Minister will not allow it. She will not amend the Road Transport Act and will not use the freedom it gives her, if she studied it properly, to issue licences. This leaves people standing with an insufficient service.

Public transport needs a dramatic increase in investment. CIE, Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus need money. There is plenty of work for those in the public and private sectors who provide public transport. There is no competition in the sense of a zero sum gain as between the two sectors in the provision of public transport. There is plenty of work for all. The obstacle, just as in regard to providing funds for Vantastic and to recruiting refugees to work in firms where jobs exist for [1083] them, is in this House and nowhere else. This is where the failure is in our political system. It is a political failure and we must deal with that.

The Minister correctly diagnosed child care as a problem facing society and he has personal experience of this issue. It is a real problem. However, we must put it in its wider context. This is the most stressful time in history to be a child in Ireland. Children must cope with long delays getting to and from school. If they walk to school, they must cope with the hazard that they might be killed on the way to school by drivers who are stressed by their attentiveness to the important job of driving a car, which is a potentially lethal weapon, along a road where children may pass. In addition, children's playgrounds are being fouled by dogs or litter where the law is not being enforced. The playground or some of the play equipment on the playground, from which people could fall, may be closed to children because the local authority has been advised that it is liable to be sued by people claiming compensation for injury.

The facility to make claims and incur liabilities of that nature is a legal question which, with the issue of the compensation culture, is not being addressed in this House.

If we want to employ greater numbers of people and open more playgrounds and recreational facilities, we must deal with the issue of public liability insurance which is causing major problems. The issue has been on the agenda of successive Governments. It was on the agenda of the Government which I led and we did not find a solution to it. This Government has not found the solution either. The issue was doubtless also on the agenda of the previous Fianna Fáil-Labour and Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Governments. No Government has dealt successfully with the issue of the cost of public liability insurance and its effect.

We are being forced to deal with it in one area, the Defence Forces deafness claims. That is only because the Government finances are under pressure. We have not bothered to do anything where the finances of sports organisations or local authorities, which wish to provide playgrounds, are under pressure because of excessive liability claims. It is dealt with only when it affects the budget forecasts of the Minister for Finance's advisers. That is not as it should be and I hope something will be done about it.

The issue of affordable child care is a major problem. We should use schools in the evenings to allow child care to be provided for infants or for children who cannot go home until their parents return from work and who wish to stay on to do their homework. Insurance liability regulations are preventing us from doing that. The Ministers for Education and Science and Environment and Local Government could change those regulations in this House, but they have not yet done so. We must recognise that insurance costs are a major obstacle for crèche owners. [1084] Legislation has been imposed on them in regard to the space necessary for each child, but we have not provided finance to enable that space to be provided. We then wonder why there is a child care crisis. The crisis is the inevitable result of the lack of decisions made in this House.

Decisions have not been taken in many other areas. I deplore the failure of the Minister for Defence to produce the promised White Paper on defence. I deplore the failure of the Minister for Education and Science to produce the long promised legislation on a children's ombudsman. I deplore the failure of the Minister for Agriculture and Food to produce the long promised White Paper on rural development at a time when we have unprecedented urban congestion. There has never been a greater need for the production of a paper on rural development.

Certain political gaps are not being filled and the House should not adjourn until assurances are given that the issues I have outlined will be dealt with.

Mr. Quinn: A long shadow has been cast over this House today as it adjourns business for the summer recess, not alone by the loss of the lives of four Air Corps members but also by the continuing uncertainty in Northern Ireland. The tragic deaths of the four Air Corps officers – Captain Dave O'Flaherty, Captain Michael Baker, Sergeant Paddy Mooney and Corporal Niall Byrne – in Tramore, County Waterford, late last night has saddened us all. The grief is compounded by the fact that this was the first flight of the new helicopter for the south-east, the purpose of which was to save lives. The hope and expectation embodied in the photograph of officers O'Flaherty and Baker in today's Irish Independent further deepens the sad irony of the situation. Our condolences and support go out in the first instance to the immediate families, extended families and friends of each of the officers. However, we must not forget the impact which this sad event will have on the officers' Air Corps colleagues. It is the body's first experience of loss of life in action and it will mark them significantly.

News of the tragedy at Tramore was accompanied on our radio this morning by further analysis of yesterday's events at Stormont. It is probably too early for a complete analysis of the events of recent days. Those of us outside the process cannot pretend to be aware of the detail and, more significantly, the nuances of what has occurred. Suffice it to say that the two Governments must be congratulated on the immense efforts they have put into the process in the past couple of weeks. Nobody can doubt their commitment to resolving the impasse which is holding up the implementation of the aspirations of the Irish people North and South and, I suspect, of all of the people on these islands.

The Good Friday Agreement is about the future. It is about shutting the door on a bloody and sorrowful period in our history. Unfortu[1085] nately, the reasons for the need for a settlement such as the Good Friday Agreement may become more apparent as the summer progresses. The imposition of a deadline by the two Governments, particularly by the British Prime Minister, has been the source of some debate. The strategy was certainly risky but, given the inability of both parties in this dispute to shift from long-stated positions until the last few hours, it was probably necessary. I, for one, will not second guess the decision.

It is important that the progress which has been made in recent days is not lost. The onus now lies on the parties to resolve the outstanding issues. I do not envy the position of the Assembly members, particularly those whose obduracy lessens their party leaders' room for manoeuvre. The party leaders must return to their constituencies and explain why a fresh start for Northern Ireland has once more been delayed.

Events at Stormont did not form the subject of the only debate about the future which took place this week. This House had an animated and interesting week in which two crucial issues were dealt with, namely, the manner in which available financial resources should be used and the manner in which the people who come from abroad to this country seeking refuge should be dealt with. I understand that these debates have largely gone unreported due to events elsewhere. However, that does not diminish their importance.

For the reality to be grasped, it must be stated time and again that this State and society has come a long way in a short period of time. Since 1994, only five years ago, our wealth has grown by a massive 44 per cent. Everyone knows there is money around and that there are jobs to be filled. In that respect, I welcome the belated conversion of the Minister for Finance to a half recognition of the need to invest money and the rather tentative plan for a proposed investment of £25 billion in the region over the next period of the national plan. In particular, I welcome the comments made by the Leader of the Fine Gael Party on the need to co-ordinate such investment to ensure we achieve a synergy and a real value for its impact. I have been calling for this for the past 18 months. In July of last year, the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland issued a proposal for a decade of investment which would result in us systematically dealing with problems which have been identified in part, although comprehensively, by Deputy Bruton. The scale of the problem is so enormous that the Deputy could doubtless have spoken for a further hour.

The Government has been a major beneficiary of economic growth. The Exchequer is enjoying a bounty which was unimaginable even three years ago when I had the honour of serving as Minister for Finance. Let me put it in the following stark context. The Minister for Finance, who introduced this debate, is doubtless busy elsewhere but is ably represented by the dauphin of the Fianna Fáil Party. In December of this year, the Minister will have a total of £5.5 billion or £55 [1086] billion of solid currency on his desk, equivalent to the entire proceeds Ireland received over the past six years from EU Structural Funds.

It is necessary to state and restate the scale of the opportunities now facing us. As a society, we have yet to face up to the challenges posed by this new wealth.

We have unprecedented choices to make and opportunities to fulfil. No previous group of elected representatives who had the honour to sit in this House was presented with the same opportunities. The debate this week in Private Members' time was about putting in place the economic infrastructure necessary to sustain economic development. Such a debate is timely and I welcome its broadening and the broadening of the participation in it.

We cannot continue to allow the standards of the past to constrain our aspirations for the future. The Government stubbornly refuses to recognise the new opportunities and challenges. It smugly makes comparisons between its performance and that of its predecessors, as if the economic situation was remotely similar. The speech of the Minister for Finance was another chapter in that smug complacency. We have been transformed. References to the position two, three, four or five years ago are not relevant. The question is what will we be like in two, three, four or five years from now.

The Government's response to the housing crisis is a good example and it can no longer hide behind the old excuse that it has only come into office. It has consistently sought to deny that there is a crisis; there is. The Drudy report commissioned by the Labour Party has identified – no one has challenged this figure – that up to 135,000 are in need of adequate or improved accommodation. The Minister for Finance said that 40,000 to 50,000 housing units will be built this year. The Government has refused to commission its own report and blithely adds that it has succeeded in slowing down the rate of increase in house prices and that more houses are being built.

Little or nothing has been done to assist local authorities to acquire more land at reasonable cost and the 20 per cent social housing requirement in private development remains a pipe-dream. The chairman of An Bord Pleanála said that such a proposal contained in planning permissions is probably ultra vires. This task will have to be confronted by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government.

The deficiencies in our transport infrastructure – road, rail and otherwise – are becoming more painfully apparent. Over-reliance on private transport is choking our cities and towns, yet we continue to underfund public transport. The Minister for Public Enterprise did not have the courage to say this this morning but, rather than make buses and trains more attractive, she intends to sanction an increase in fares next week [1087] when the House is in recess further driving away potential passengers. That is political courage.

The Government's refusal to invest the resources at its disposal makes no sense. It has earmarked a massive privatisation programme which pays scant regard to the overall strategic interests of the people or the companies involved. Despite warnings from many sources, it appears intent on creating private monopolies from public monopolies and selling off, for example, Coillte, the biggest land owning body in the State, for no apparent reason. Is it to reward the chief executives or because it needs the extra cash? What will it do with the extra money? The Government is ideologically driven. The Minister for Finance attempts to suggest that Fianna Fáil is a party with no policy. In this respect, whatever about the rest of the social democrats or populists who linger in Fianna Fáil, the right-wing ideology of the Minister for Finance is clear. Why is the Government contemplating selling off Coillte? What will it do with the £5.5 billion that it will have at the end of this year?

The reluctance of the Minister for Finance to accept that public investment is now possible and back on the political agenda is not surprising. His are the politics of a decade ago. He appears intent on ensuring that no private finance will be allowed to tackle the problems created by his refusal to commit public funds. A report on public-private partnerships was presented to the Department of Finance over one year ago. The Minister for Finance announced six projects that would benefit from PPPs which the Labour Party supports. When asked if discussions had been held with financial institutions about possible participation the answer was “no”. The matter has been entrusted to a section of the Department of Finance which dislikes intensely and ideologically the idea of public-private partnerships. It is as if the Minister for Finance believes that complaints from economic bodies and the public are part of the general whinge about standards in public life which he views contemptuously.

The problem is that the Government is doing so well it does not know what to do. It thinks it has created the economic boom.

Mr. J. Bruton: The country is doing well.

Mr. Quinn: The Government is in charge of an economy that is doing so well that it does not know what to do. It thinks it is responsible. At the behest of Deputy Healy-Rae it has put more effort into securing additional Structural Funds for particular regions than it has into preparing the entire nation for the future. I welcome the securing of additional EU funds to which the State remains entitled. However, I worry about the continued and almost absolute importance attached to these funds. The matter needs to be put in context. This year's budget surplus will be equivalent to the total amount of Structural Funds received in the period 1994 to 1999.

[1088] Whatever else, the future of the west and Border counties as well as Ballymun and Knocknaheeny will depend on decisions taken in this House. Deputy Healy-Rae's influence on the Government should not be underestimated. It appears that Deputy Healy-Rae has the power to stir the Minister for the Environment and Local Government into action. The Bill to reform local government has not appeared despite the postponing of the local elections on more than one occasion to facilitate its publication.

The performance of the Minister for the Environment and Local Government at the recent EU conference on genetically modified organisms shamed him and the Government. It highlights the ongoing drift from environmental issues which started with the scaling down of the campaign against the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant. Ireland recently joined Spain in vetoing moves towards EU harmonised green or eco taxes. Despite the fact that Ireland is already in excess of the agreed levels of CO2 emissions arising from the Kyoto Summit and subsequent EU decisions, the Ministers for the Environment and Local Government and Finance appear confused as to who should take responsibility for an issue which we all acknowledge will bear heavily on future generations.

Standards in public life have dominated this Dáil session. The Taoiseach has shown, at best, disregard and, at worst, contempt for his responsibilities to this House on more than one occasion. Despite the Government's best wishes, this issue will not go away. It has some way to go – I include the Progressive Democrats in this – before it is given a clean bill of health.

What is most disappointing is that the Government continues to pay lip-service to this issue, for example, its decision not to cap local elections expenditure was despicable and contrary to the thrust of measures taken by the House in recent years to protect the reputation of the profession of politics. Only two days ago, less than one month after the Taoiseach's special adviser was forced to resign arising from a conflict of interest between his directorship of a PR firm and his position in the Taoiseach's office, the Government voted down Labour Senator Gallagher's Bill in the Seanad on the registration of lobbyists.

Again, I sense the hand of the Minister for Finance in that decision. There was no Cabinet meeting this week and no decision was taken in respect of the Bill. The Minister for Education and Science is obviously not aware that a unilateral decision was taken to vote down the Bill in the Seanad.

Mr. Martin: There was a Cabinet meeting this week.

Mr. Quinn: I thank the Minister for confirming something which had not been confirmed previously. When we asked for that information, we were told there was no meeting. Is the Minister [1089] saying that it was decided at that meeting to vote down the Bill?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Deputy Quinn, this is not Question Time.

Mr. Martin: I am not in a position to discuss the proceedings of Cabinet meetings. I am simply seeking to correct the record.

Mr. J. Bruton: I thought those meetings were confidential. The Government went to court to prove it.

Mr. Quinn: The decisions of the Cabinet are not confidential. If the Minister for Education and Science is attempting to suggest he is debarred from announcing decisions of the Cabinet, his role as Minister with responsibility for education has further to travel.

Worse still, it was the right hand, in more ways than one, of the Minister for Finance that vetoed Seanad support for Second Stage of legislation providing for a register of lobbyists. Shame upon it if a Cabinet chose to veto this measure less than four weeks after the Taoiseach, out of the corner of his mouth, said it might be necessary to register these activities. Is it any wonder we are cynical about the utterances from that side of the House?

The real irony is that the Government voted down a Bill to register the activities of lobbyists and then caved in to the biggest lobby group in Ireland. The publicans of this country and in this House have the Government by the proverbials. They made ducks and drakes of the Fianna Fáil Party over the last 48 hours. This is directly relevant to the registration of lobbyists' interests. This was achieved by the six or seven publicans who are members of the Fianna Fáil Party and others. If ever the country sought evidence of an inside lobby group nobbling a Government at the last moment, this was it. What a contradiction and a farce. This Government has talked about standards in public and political life but, when put to the test, its actions have fallen far short of its words.

The Government and, particularly, the Taoiseach have shown great sensitivity when the Opposition raises issues of accountability. I have been accused of engaging in personality politics. I reject that. The role of an Opposition party is to act as a watchdog on behalf of the people. If the Taoiseach fails to carry out his legal responsibilities as an employer and to lodge with the necessary offices, including the Oireachtas Library, documentation relating to the terms and conditions of the people he employs and if we do not ask about that, who else will? What does the Government think is the role of an Opposition Deputy?

Is a garda operating a personal vendetta if he attempts to arrest somebody who is committing a wrong? Is a teacher carrying out some form of personality politics in a classroom if he attempts to correct a pupil who does something that is manifestly wrong? Yet when an Opposition poli[1090] tician holds a Taoiseach to account for manifestly failing to do something which he is legally obliged to do, he is accused of engaging in some form of personality politics. That is nonsense and poor politics. It is weak and defensive.

Over the past year this Taoiseach has had to come to the House on more occasions than any of his predecessors to deal with questions of political judgment and accountability. Rennicks, Sheedy, Gilmartin, Duffy and Flynn refer to just some of the controversies that have arisen on his watch and in respect of which he has had to be held to account to the Dáil. Whether he responded in many cases in either a comprehensive or convincing manner is his problem, not that of the Opposition. We are not engaged in personality politics but in the politics of opposition until we return to the other side of the House.

The tribunals currently sitting are an important part of a process that is necessary to restore public life in this State. The revelations may be painful and costly but they are necessary and my party will continue to support them. Another political lie in the Minister for Finance's contribution should be nailed. He claimed that the Government instituted the tribunals, as if it came to the House and said “Would it not be a wonderful idea to set up a tribunal to investigate Ray Burke and Charles Haughey?”. The Government was dragged screaming and kicking into the House. It fought many amendments, including one which would have included the Glen Ding controversy in the remit of the Moriarty tribunal. The attempt by Fianna Fáil to suggest that it voluntarily proposed the establishment of tribunals is a political lie and I use that word advisedly.

I referred earlier to the debate on economic infrastructure. It is an important debate but only on one side of the coin. Hand in hand with preparing our physical infrastructure for the new millennium is, according to citizens, the type of rights that have been denied to them for too long. It is a scandal that queues for basic social services continue to grow at a time of plenty for many. Unemployment may be decreasing in terms of numbers, but a massive amount of investment is still required to restore confidence and support to the communities which it ravages and continues to damage.

The drugs problem remains enormous. It not only damages the individual that it corrupts but has an overall corrosive effect on the community. The recent ESRI report on anti-social behaviour in local authority housing estates and the drugs problem are interlinked. The drugs problem in our prisons is also an issue that must be tackled, particularly in Mountjoy. I invite the Government to look again at the second report of the ministerial task force on measures to reduce demand for drugs. The perception that this problem has been tackled with any degree of finality is misleading and it is not the experience of those in communities still ravaged by the scourge of drug abuse. Methadone maintenance is not and cannot be an end in itself.

[1091] We cannot allow access to health care based on ability to pay rather than on an assessment of medical need to continue into the next century. This is an important issue and we must address it. I see no sign that this Government is attempting to do so. Planning and preparation for the care of our elderly are also crucial. Within ten years Ireland will have 88,000 more people over the age of 66 years in its population and no planning or provision is being made for them.

The debate on immigration is a significant issue which this country must face. Let nobody misunderstand the passion which fuelled the debate in the House this week. Immigration has long since overtaken emigration in our society. Anybody who canvassed during the local elections will have noticed the increased number of non-nationals living in Ireland, drawn by high-tech computer industries and the attractiveness of living in the youngest country in Europe. As a society we do not appear to have a problem with these people. For the most part, they are European and, perhaps more importantly, white. However, it is different if the colour of their skin is not white.

This republic, learning to live at last with its own divisions, has transferred some of its animosities to these new outsiders. Our immigration services patrol our borders with vigour, policing their coming and going. The irony is that reports of labour shortages in key industries continue to grow. The latest report of shortages of labour in the beef processing industry is a case in point. Our response, which is supported by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform – a man from County Kerry which is known to have its people scattered across the globe – has been to systematically prevent people who are seeking asylum from working. This policy has been confirmed time and again, even this week in the context of the Immigration Bill, by the Minister.

When this period of time is studied by historians the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will not come out of it well. For two years he ignored a call to implement the Refugee Act, including a motion to this effect which was passed unanimously by the Dáil in December 1997. Having dithered for two years, he then chose to use the opportunity presented by the Immigration Bill to produce a 16 page amendment to the Refugee Act. Such an amendment is, in effect, the equivalent of an entirely new Bill. It is totally unacceptable that such an important matter which has such serious implications for the rights of asylum seekers should have been treated in this way.

Even at this stage the independent procedures recommended by all agencies dealing with refugees, and provided for in the Refugee Act, are still not in place. An Act passed by the Oireachtas and signed by the President was bypassed for nearly two years by the Minister and his Department. It has been a deeply shameful experience.

The way in which the Government pushed the Immigration Bill and the amendments to the [1092] Refugee Act through the Oireachtas suggests that the human rights of asylum seekers do not rate very highly on the Government's political agenda. We have evidence to confirm that. The fact that one year after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement the Government still has to introduce legislation to establish a human rights commission suggests to me that the civil rights of our own citizens do not rate very highly either. A solemn commitment was made by both Governments in that Agreement that a human rights commission would be established. The British have honoured that commitment. The Labour Party published a Private Members' Bill to give effect to the same commitment. In Britain, the necessary legislation was passed by Westminster before the end of last year and a chief executive was appointed. We, however, have got no further than the Government producing the heads of the Bill, which is the preliminary stage of the legislative process. We cannot, with any moral authority, criticise others for the failure to meet their obligations under the Good Friday Agreement when our Government has shown such a cavalier disregard for honouring its commitments.

We are told that the Government intends reviewing its programme for Government over the summer. There is clearly a need for a radical overhaul of that programme. The opportunities facing us are momentous. A programme to prepare this society for a new century, to radically change our attitude to certain sections of our community is what should be presented to the social partners as part of the preparations for a new national programme.

As long as the Government continues to pursue, in tandem with the British Administration, a balanced approach to the search for a political solution to the problems of Northern Ireland – and I say this formally to the members of the Government present and to the Fianna Fáil Party – the Labour Party will continue to provide the constructive support it has given over the last two years.

In all other areas, however, we will continue with a policy of vigorous opposition. This is a Government with all the resources and no ideas. The Government now has the financial resources to make this country the envy of Europe in the next millennium, but instead it seems transfixed, immobilised and incapable of rising to the challenge. This is a Government under which a modest semi-detached house has moved way outside the price range of most families.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy's time has concluded. Because of the limited period for debate he is taking the time of another Member.

Mr. Quinn: I am not, because the Minister for Finance ran out of steam after 25 minutes. We will be back on track at 3.30 p.m.

[1093] An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Yes, but the slots are filled in up to 4.30 p.m.

Mr. Quinn: I will not disagree with you, but you are wrong. I will conclude. I think I have landed enough punches.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Chair is correct. There was a time slot of 30 minutes for the Deputy.

Mr. Quinn: The point I am making is that since the Minister for Finance was capable of speaking for only 25 minutes, had we all taken half an hour each, there would have been five minutes left over.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: A five minute slot was filled by another Member and that is the slot the Deputy is eating into.

Minister for Education and Science (Mr. Martin): I also wish to convey my sympathy to the families of the members of our Air Corps who were so tragically killed yesterday evening. It was with great shock that we learned of the tragedy and I am devastated for the families concerned.

The Adjournment of the House provides us with an opportunity of evaluating the developments of the last legislative session and to see how we have progressed. Above everything else, from my own perspective, I think the performance of the Government in relation to the peace process, and particularly the performance of the Taoiseach, stands out as one of the Government's great achievements so far.

I pay tribute to the Taoiseach for his skill, perseverance and incredible devotion of time and personal energy towards finding a resolution, with others, to the conflict on this island. I want to pay tribute both to the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister for the extraordinary efforts they are making with the other parties this week in Belfast to reach a resolution of outstanding issues. Ultimately, the prize of bringing peace to this island must be the Government's central objective. It is the litmus test for all of us in the House. I welcome the support from other parties for the Taoiseach's endeavours. We wish him, with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and others who are currently involved in the negotiations, every success.

The Government has much to look back on with pride and to look forward to with confidence. Across the full range of activity, major strides have been made to develop public services, to promote social inclusion and empower individuals. When taken together with the initiatives launched over the last two years, there is a record of substance which will stand the test of time and serve as a comprehensive rebuttal to the rhetoric of those who showed no imagination for or commitment to tackling issues when they had the opportunity only a short time ago.

[1094] Comprehensive action has been taken to reverse the neglect of housing policy. Local government has been put on a sounder financial footing. Our health services have received unprecedented investment and our social services have been developed to focus innovative programmes on helping those most in need.

In the field of education we have implemented a range of initiatives which are already ensuring that our education system is stronger and more inclusive. We are currently implementing the largest ever concentrated modernisation programme in the history of Irish education. Almost £300 million has been allocated to school capital projects. This is benefiting communities throughout the country which have had most of the burden of local fund raising lifted from them. We are bringing to an end the era of substandard school accommodation and are working hard to reach the day when every child can attend school in an environment which can help their learning rather than hinder it.

We are also modernising what happens within our schools. New curricula have been introduced allied to extensive teacher development, and we have implemented one of the most ambitious school information technology programmes in the world. Going from a very low base, we have connected every school to the Internet and by the end of this year over two thirds of our teachers will have participated in IT training courses.

Turning to third level, the position is just as impressive. The £250 million education technology investment fund represents an unprecedented investment in developing crucially important areas of education. This is the golden age of third level building, with campuses throughout the country being reborn with world class facilities. Added to this has been a real commitment to support excellence in research, which will make a huge contribution towards keeping Ireland at the cutting edge in a global economy where knowledge is the key ingredient.

It is not just the physical infrastructure of our education system which is benefiting from major investment. The last Government's freeze of school funding has been abandoned and this year has seen the largest ever increase in direct current funding for our primary schools.

Mr. U. Burke: The Minister reintroduced third level fees.

Mr. Martin: Pupil-teacher ratios have also been cut and the first increase in teacher numbers in many years is being implemented. After two years of asking, I have yet to hear an explanation why the 1997 budget included a proposed plan to cut back teacher numbers.

Added to these system-wide improvements, we have shown an unmatched commitment to tackling important issues of disadvantage. The 1999 budget has given us the opportunity to implement a plan to tackle disadvantage at all levels of the system. Involving £57 million over two years, this [1095] package has allowed a level of innovative and comprehensive action which could not have been possible with the type of mind-set we saw both in the 1997 budget and in previous years.

A series of initiatives to identify and help children at risk of dropping out of school and getting caught in cycles of disadvantage have also been implemented. The Education (Welfare) Bill, currently before the House, will help us to put in place a radical new approach to school attendance and early school leaving.

The discredited enforcement-led model will be replaced with one focused on the individual education needs of the child. The Bill will help address the damaging impact of dead end jobs attracting marginal pupils out of education.

The issue of adult literacy has been subject to much lip service over the years but action is now being taken. Funding has been almost trebled and more people are participating in adult literacy programmes than ever before. One of the greatest concentrations of educational disadvantage in our society is among the travelling community. A representative committee has been established to advise on policy development and we have significantly improved the range of services and resources for this group.

In September, for the first time ever, every school in the country will have a remedial service available to it and every disadvantaged school, at primary and second level, will have a home-school liaison service.

The initiative of which we can be proudest is a scheme based on the right of children with disabilities to the teaching and child care support they need to benefit most from education. This has included the first ever recognition of the education needs of children with autism. It is difficult to comprehend that before last December such children did not have automatic entitlement to recognition in the education system. Every week the High Court has fewer special education cases on its list and every week more children are being given the opportunity to develop to their full potential. That is real action which resonates louder than the empty rhetoric of lightly given empathy.

The opportunity to participate in higher education has been expanded greatly with a 9 per cent expansion already. Further education has increased by one third. We have introduced a new grants scheme to support students who want to attend post leaving certificate courses. The legislative programme which we have implemented has also helped to strengthen our system. For the first time in our history we have a comprehensive Education Act on the Statute Book, establishing the rights and responsibilities of each person and group. It provides an enabling framework for protecting what works and tackling what does not. The Qualifications (Education and Training) Bill, 1999, which hopefully will be introduced shortly, will promote a system of further and higher education with allows flexi[1096] bility, supports inclusion and progression but insists on quality.

In addition to a body of smaller items of legislation, the Education (Welfare) Bill will be regarded as a landmark. The vocational education committee Bill, which will be introduced in the next session, will help to reinvigorate a crucial element of the second level education system. The teaching council Bill is with the draftsman and it is hoped to introduce it in the next session. It will radically change the professional status of the teacher in the Irish education system. The Scientific and Technological Education (Investment Fund) (Amendment) Act, 1998, which was a radical departure not only in terms of legislation but in providing for a multi-annual system of capital funding for third level education, gives value for money and has ensured significant projects for the institutes of technology and the universities over the next two to three years. Within a short period the policy framework of Irish education will be on a much sounder footing.

The idea of working to protect and promote quality has informed our actions in a range of other areas as well. Teacher training has been brought to the fore with pre-service training receiving critical attention and in-service training brought to a new level in terms of resources and activity. Curriculum options have been expanded.

Central to the entire education programme has been the commitment of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance. The support which the Minister for Finance has given to education, in the short time in which he has been in office, contrasts sharply with the criticism he has received today in the House. He is a particularly visionary Minister for Finance and I look forward to continuing to work with him in expanding the education budget and the services that will flow as a result.

Mr. Connaughton: Our deliberations today are taking place in the shadow of, hopefully, an historic breakthrough in Northern Ireland. Such a breakthrough for peace would be the most important privilege ever bestowed on our country and it would be acknowledged for a long time to come. We also meet at a time when the economy is roaring ahead. The figures for job creation and those at work are impressive. There are fewer people on the dole, interest rates are lower and the export figures are good. In other words, it is a good all-round performance based on many years of planning and much hardship. I would not like to think the Government would take all the kudos for what is happening.

However, within this excellent set of economic circumstances many groups face a very low horizon. For example, the sick must queue for hours on end at our hospitals, those who need eye and hip operations must wait for up to four to five years and one night this week the disabled had to protest outside the House to draw the attention of the Government. The group I know best, the [1097] 150,000 farming families, are going through a living hell.

On behalf of Fine Gael I deplore the manner in which the Government has turned its back on Irish agriculture. I am fully aware of the negative aspects – the incidence of BSE, the resultant loss of markets, the food scares and so on. There is no reason agriculture should be relegated to the second division. Agriculture was the first Celtic tiger and this seems to be forgotten by many people. Generations of Irish farmers played a vital role in developing export markets all over the world. Irish farmers and their families provided a supply of good quality food at reasonable prices for the population. Farming families, with others, provided a balanced population base in rural areas which counteracted, to some degree, the great shift of population towards towns and cities. Above all else, Irish farmers are the custodians of the environment which, if allowed to deteriorate further, would affect everybody in the State.

It is against this background that I speak of the importance of injecting hope and confidence into what was once a proud industry. In my lifetime I have not witnessed a depression as bad in the farming community. It is facing another horrific year – the signs are not good for 1999. Cattle prices, in particular store cattle prices, are as depressed as in the dark days of November and December 1998.

To illustrate how the asset value of livestock has collapsed let us take the case of a medium farmer with 100 cattle – 40 suckler cows, 40 weanlings and 20 other cattle. In 1997 the average value of his animals was £54,000; today the value of that herd is £34,000. We talk about bad days on the stock exchanges. Should the value of shares collapse on the stock exchanges to the same degree as the values in the livestock industry there would be pandemonium all over the world.

The Government has convinced itself that there is nothing it can do. It is beaten at home and away on agriculture and it stumbles from one crisis to another. For example, in the pig sector the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the Minister of State spoke about a real turnabout last December, later it was forecast for March-April and now it is not sure – it might happen in October and it might not. Terrible damage has been done to farming families who are outstanding pig farmers but could not take the financial crisis.

The cattle trade looks set for another bad autumn. The only bright spot, the export of live cattle to the Continent, is under threat daily. There was the problem of inadequate shipping but that seems to have been overcome to a large degree. We now find the Spanish Government has arbitrarily imposed a ban on live exports of cattle over 12 months of age. Seemingly its Health Minister wants the backbone and ganglia classified as special risk material in its fight against BSE. This is completely out of kilter with the veterinary regulations in all the other EU [1098] countries. It would not be a practical proposition to export our weanlings, which would have to be killed at under 12 months, to Spain if it continued down this road. Neither the Government nor the Minister has taken this problem as seriously as they should.

The next crisis arose last week and concerned the question of veterinary controls on the export of live cattle. The Government had intended to implement these yesterday, on 1 July. The problem was it did not tell anybody and huge ongoing problems about interpretation of the health certificate arose. However, let no farmer be in doubt that there is an attack on the live cattle trade from many sides. I hope the new exports certificate will not mess up our livestock exports this year.

I call on the Minister and his Department to be more sensitive in their interpretation of this regulation. We proudly boast of having the best health status for our national herd of any country in Europe. The controls now in place should be enough to convince even the most discerning buyers that our product is the best.

Whether it is real or imaginary, many livestock farmers believe there are forces in this country who want to stop the export of live cattle. We will export 180,000 live cattle this year, which is considerably more than last year. There are now almost eight million cattle in the country, which is a record. All are agreed that we have very poor export outlets lined up for the rest of this year. It would be nothing short of financial suicide if we were stopped or impeded in any way from exporting cattle, dead or alive. That is our job. We are an exporting country. If we get a market, in no matter what part of the world, we sell. That must be the buzzword, not just now but in two months or five years. That message has not yet hit home.

We are a member of the EU where the principle of free trade has been an established cornerstone for many years. We have a product that can be sold and is sought after in other countries. There is no reason unnecessary impediments should be placed in the way of that trade.

This is a time for great political leadership in the farming industry. Those who are not farmers do not understand the severity of this crisis. That is acceptable. However, despite the booming economy, the farming community is going through a horrific time. I make a special plea to the Minister and the Taoiseach to give an undertaking to every farming family that everything will be done in the short term to try to get our agricultural community through the ravages of the next six to 12 months.

We have much work to do, including extensive planning in the agricultural economy. We must do things over the next couple of years we never attempted before. We must completely rearrange our breeding policy because the breeding programme is not good enough to meet the new demands. We must also do a huge job on our marketing across the world. Against this back[1099] ground I wish to make it clear that old friends are best. Many people are flying the flag for some of the new industries, which I hope we will have for another 100 years. They are very important. However, we should never forget old friends. The day for Irish agriculture will come again. We must give a chance to those young people who genuinely want to make a sustainable living from the land.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government (Mr. Molloy): While our average income per capita has now reached European norms, our national housing stock is only two thirds of the European average in relation to population. We have the incomes and the borrowing capacity but we lack the supply of housing that should correspond to our European level of incomes and increasingly European demographic profile.

The Government's overriding housing strategy of increasing housing supply derives from this reality. We may need to build up to half a million new housing units over the next ten years and I hope we can see annual housing output rise to 50,000 units per annum over the next few years. In recognition that the availability of suitably serviced development land was a major constraint on the development of housing, a range of key initiatives are being implemented by the Government to provide services to open up land for residential development. The serviced land initiative alone has provided £39 million from the Exchequer, which, with £60 million investment by private developers, will open up 100,000 additional housing sites. The budget provided for a rural towns initiative aimed at providing badly needed water and sewerage facilities in towns and villages that have not been accorded priority under existing programmes.

Overall capital expenditure on water and sewerage services under the national development plan, 1994-99, will amount to more than £960 million, which is far in excess of the £605 million envisaged when the plan was agreed. The Government is determined that the infrastructural deficit will be radically addressed in the new national development plan, 2000-06, which is now at an advanced stage of preparation. This plan will provide the framework for the best utilisation of Exchequer, EU and private funding to carry out a seven year infrastructure programme unprecedented in the history of the State.

Housing represents the largest infrastructural deficit of all. From day one, in July 1997, we set out our key priorities in our action programme, including a continuing house construction programme by local authorities and voluntary groups, refurbishment of existing inadequate housing, improvement and extension of social housing schemes, maximum co-ordination of housing policy and local authorities developing serviced sites to accelerate the supply of new [1100] houses to meet rising demands and deflate escalating house prices.

We have achieved remarkable progress in expanding housing output, tackling house prices and putting in place a series of measures to provide for a significantly expanded social housing programme. The overall policy framework, within which housing measures are being pursued, incorporates the key objectives to secure sustained house price stabilisation as quickly as possible through accelerating housing supply and to provide an effective strategy for development in the medium and long term.

Not only is it necessary to maximise the supply of serviced land, it is also essential to maximise the potential of that serviced land. This necessitates appropriate levels of residential density, which will secure the efficient use of serviced land and, at the same time, further the objectives of sustainability and help reduce the problem of commuter-generated traffic congestion, especially in the Dublin area. The recently published draft planning guidelines on residential density will make a major contribution to securing these objectives. Local authorities have been asked to implement them even in their draft form, and I emphasise that they and An Bord Pleanála will be obliged under law to have regard to the guidelines when they are formally issued.

My Department is reviewing the possibilities for increasing the supply of land for a greatly increased social and affordable housing programme and actions by the Government in this area will not be constrained by any left or right-wing ideology. Meeting increased housing demands in a balanced and sustainable fashion requires not only increased private housing supply but providing for tenure choice.

The Government is acutely aware of the importance of the private rented sector and the need to maximise its potential in meeting our housing objectives. The perceived difficulties in this sector, together with its importance in the context of current housing needs, demand action on a broad front. The issue of security of tenure cannot appropriately be considered in isolation from other key issues, such as rents, supply and quality of accommodation, investment return, market considerations and existing constraints to the development of the sector. These all impact on the optimum operation of the sector.

It was for these reasons that I decided that a commission on the private rented residential sector should be established. The aim is that the commission will produce recommendations which will have a positive overall outcome and contribute to achieving a thriving, more diverse and well managed sector. I am pleased to inform the House that Mr. Tom Dunne of the Faculty of the Built Environment, Dublin Institute of Technology, has indicated his willingness to act as chairman of the commission. The membership of the commission will comprise nominees of the Law Society, the Bar Council, Threshold, St. Vincent de Paul, the Irish Property Owners' [1101] Association, the Irish Auctioneers and Valuers Institute, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland, the Irish Association of Investment Managers, the Attorney General's office and relevant Departments. The commission will report to me and will be serviced by my Department.

The Government's commitment to the provision of social housing is reflected in the significantly increased funding for social housing since it took office.

In two years the Government has increased Exchequer spending on housing by a massive 45 per cent. This year's capital provision will allow 4,500 new local authority housing “starts”, the highest number in 13 years.

To meet the expanding social housing needs and to help deliver local authority housing more efficiently, a new four year multi-annual local authority housing programme of 22,000 additional houses will commence next year – the equivalent of an increase of more than one fifth on the existing local authority housing stock. In addition, we believe the voluntary housing sector has the capacity to provide some 4,000 units of accommodation per year.

This will, of course, require a greatly increased level of support from my Department and local authorities, not least in terms of the availability of land. In overall terms, the target is to expand social housing output through the range of local authority and voluntary housing programmes to cover the needs of more than 16,000 households per annum over the next few years, thus delivering social housing to almost 60,000 households over the next four years.

The targeting of social deprivation and dereliction in cities and towns also forms the basis of our new approach to urban renewal. The new urban renewal scheme which I launched in February, and which will benefit 38 towns and five cities, has a more focused approach based on preparation of integrated area plans. The new scheme includes an overall objective of ensuring that at least 15 per cent of additional bed spaces provided in an IAP area should be social housing. Many of the IAPs will co-ordinate with the local authorities redevelopment and refurbishment programmes which have already been approved.

The business incentives available under the new scheme – the introduction of which were deferred pending receipt of EU approval – were brought into operation with effect from yesterday. This decision removed the climate of uncertainty which had existed for some time regarding the extent to which commercial-industrial tax incentives could be applied for the new urban renewal scheme.

I expect to be in a position to circulate guidelines for the new town renewal scheme by the end of this month. This scheme, which is aimed at the restoration and conservation of townscapes in smaller towns, will make the benefits of renewal tax incentives available in up to 130 towns throughout rural Ireland with populations of [1102] between 500 and 6,000 and forms an important part of the rural renewal programme.

The Government has now been in office for two years which is not bad when one considers that, in June 1997, a Fine Gael Minister in the outgoing rainbow Government told people he confidently expected to be back in government within six months. He is still waiting and might do so for a while yet.

The Progressive Democrats Party can look back with a real sense of achievement at its last two years in government. It has put privatisation back on the agenda. One only has to look at the surge of public interest in the Telecom Éireann flotation to see that privatisation is hugely popular with the people. It is a shame that conservative forces on the left resisted moves towards privatisation for so long and kept it off the national agenda for several years. It is a remarkable coincidence that flotations of State companies seem to occur only when the Progressive Democrats Party is in government. We have made real progress on liberalising the economy. The telecommunications market has been opened up to full competition and the demerger of Cablelink – again resisted by the conservatives on the left for several years – will open up new and exciting opportunities for consumers.

We have reduced taxes. The halving of capital gains tax was a spectacular success and has greatly increased the revenue take from this tax subhead. In our first budget we reduced both rates of personal taxation by 2 per cent. Again, it is one of those remarkable coincidences that the top rate of tax only ever seems to come down when the Progressive Democrats Party is in government. We have reformed the tax system. The introduction of tax credits in the last budget was the most fundamental and positive reform to our personal taxation regime in a generation. Left-wing parties talked about tax credits; we delivered them. Job creation has reached record levels since Deputy Harney took over as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. All regions of the country – Galway, Limerick, Cork, Waterford, etc. – benefit from inward investment.

The Minister's employment action plan ensures that rising employment translates into falling unemployment. She has taken real action to help unemployed people, especially the long-term unemployed, back into work. When the plan was first announced last year it was roundly attacked by some Members opposite. Today, it is seen to be spectacularly successful and the critics are silent. We have delivered on our promises to old age pensioners. Two years ago we said we would raise the old age pension to £100 per week. We have given record increases to pensioners in the last two budgets and we are on track for the £100 per week target within the lifetime of this Administration.

Diversity is the essence of democracy. The electorate must have real choices if the democratic system is to function effectively. Media [1103] commentators say the centre is crowded and that all parties are the same. Parties have shifted their positions in the face of a rapidly changing social and economic situation in Ireland but I do not accept that all parties are the same.

Mr. Shatter: The party political broadcast must stop.

Mr. Molloy: The Progressive Democrats Party and Fianna Fáil will fulfil all their policies over the three next years in Government.

Mr. Shatter: I join other Members on all sides of the House in expressing my condolences to the families of the four members of the Air Corps who tragically lost their lives. As spokesperson for Health, I am conscious of the manner in which the Air Corps worked with the health service providers over the years and has saved lives. This was a great tragedy for the families of those who lost their lives, and for all members of the Air Corps. It is right that we extend our condolences to them.

The two year term of the current Minister for Health and Children has been marked by a period within the Department of paralysis, paranoia, internecine warfare and legislative inertia. In a time of economic plenty and unprecedented Exchequer returns, the Minister has failed to obtain, and the Government has failed to provide, the essential resources necessary for a modern, responsive, patient-centred health service.

No serious attempt has been made to implement the promise contained in the programme for Government “to tackle the crisis in hospital waiting lists”. The Government has presided over a 20 per cent increase in hospital waiting lists during its term of office. On 31 March 1999, 35,000 people awaited in-patient hospital treatment compared to 29,000 on 31 March 1997. In the midst of an economic boom, and with the Exchequer coffers overflowing, the Government regards it as acceptable to treat the section of our community reliant on public hospital services with contempt and has through its policies institutionalised a two-tier health service.

It is appropriate that the debate was opened by the Minister for Finance. Lauding the economic achievements of the State, he referred to the stunning economic performance that has occurred as if in some way it is the consequence of Government policies as opposed to those implemented over a number of years by successive Governments and the hard work and sacrifices of many people outside the House. It is particularly appropriate because the performance of the Government and the Minister for Health and Children in the health area can be described as falling substantially short of stunning. Paralysed by inaction, that Department has to date failed to implement the majority of the recommendations contained in the Department's report of July 1998 on the waiting list crisis. It has also, [1104] of course, failed to implement the detailed proposals and recommendations contained in the Fine Gael policy document “Patients First”, which was the first document published to address problems in this area. The recommendations, if implemented, would radically improve hospital waiting lists.

Dr. Moffatt: Fine Gael reduced the money allocated for waiting lists.

Mr. Shatter: The Government has been committed to confrontation rather than consultation in dealing with health service providers. Nurses who are the front line of the health service have been regularly forced by the Government into unnecessary confrontation to have the value of the work they do properly recognised. There is a growing shortage of nurses, particularly within the Eastern Health Board area, and as a consequence hospitals are unable to deliver essential services which require full nursing capacity.

Just a few weeks ago, there was the extraordinary sight of junior hospital doctors conducting a lunch time protest because of the Government's failure to understand the pressures under which they work, the impact on their health of having to work 60, 70 and sometimes 80 hour weeks, and the dangers posed by the level of work to patients who come into their care.

The Government agreed to a period of 13 years to implement a basic proposal to give junior hospital doctors a 48 hour week, the type of work schedule which currently should be in force and which is required to ensure the best possible medical care is provided for patients who need it.

The Government programme states: “Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats in Government are committed to radical change to ensure that the needs and aspirations of people with disabilities, their families, carers and advocates are comprehensively addressed”, yet, three times in the past seven months, the Government has voted down Fine Gael Private Members' motions calling on it to accelerate the rate of change. The Government appears to prefer making people wait. It has adhered rigidly to timetables agreed when resources were not so plentiful. It prefers to act like Lady Bountiful, patronisingly doling out pocket money in dribs and drabs when easily affordable capital injections and increased revenue funding could radically improve so many lives.

While the Government advocates integration, independence and empowerment for people with disabilities, what they, their families, carers and advocates continue to experience is marginalisation, exclusion and powerlessness. They continue to be denied basic rights, such as the right to leave home and travel on a bus without having to be carried on or having to crawl on; the right to personal assistance services for help with dressing and feeding and the right to residential or day care for children or adults who have an intellec[1105] tual, physical or sensory disability. Basic rights for carers are also denied, such as the right to respite care. The sight this week of so many disabled people again protesting outside Leinster House simply to maintain the existence of a special travel service illustrates the bankruptcy of the Government's appalling failure. The disabled and their carers have been betrayed by the Government which has abysmally failed to comprehensively address their needs although it has all the necessary resources to do so.

At a recent meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children to consider this year's Estimates for the Department of Health and Children, there was the extraordinary sight of the Minister for Health and Children bewailing the lack of adequate funding for his Department and acknowledging that when compared to the funding allocated to health services by our European Union partners, the State finds itself at the bottom of the league. The Minister seemed to lose sight of the reality that it is his job to ensure the funding required is allocated by Government to his Department. It is his job to ensure that Ireland is at the top and not the bottom of the health service league. His extraordinary public acknowledgement of failure surprisingly attracted no media attention or comment. It is time it was understood that the Minister for Health and Children has publicly acknowledged that adequate resources to meet essential health care needs are not currently being provided by the Government.

The manner in which health policy issues are addressed by the Government is a national scandal. Neither the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Cowen, nor the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, regard any issue as of sufficient urgency to require immediate action. Plans and programmes announced are either postponed or abandoned once the media spotlight shifts to another issue. Vital breast screening and cervical screening programmes which should have been functioning by the middle of last year will not now come on stream until the new millennium. Legislation to establish a social services inspectorate, which was said to be a Government priority in 1997, has never been published and has now been shelved. Vital adoption legislation originally promised for 1998 has been inexplicably delayed and will not be seen for at least another year.

The legislative record of the Minister for Health and Children and his Department during the Government's term of office is deplorable. No health legislation of a substantial nature has originated during the lifetime of this Government and currently there is no published health legislation awaiting consideration by Dáil Éireann. The three measures which have been enacted were all under preparation during the lifetime of the previous Government.

The health area of Government is locked in a state of legislative paralysis and a broad range of issues that require attention remain unaddressed. [1106] These include the need for a new medical practitioners Act, a new mental health Act, a new nursing Act and an Act to implement in the State the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and International Co-operation in Respect of Inter-country Adoption. The Government has also failed to publish the long promised child abuse guidelines and to introduce any new measures which may be required to ensure their effectiveness. The failure of the Minister for Health and Children to oversee and develop any coherent legislative programme addressing a wide variety of outstanding health issues raises serious doubt about his commitment to his brief and his competence to preside over the Department of Health and Children.

Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern): I wish to share my time with the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea.

An Ceann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. D. Ahern: Earlier Deputy Quinn referred to the lobbyists Bill and he accused the Government of being against such a measure. However, that is not the case. The Government's position on the Bill was enunciated in the Seanad and it agrees in principle with the rationale behind a register of lobbyists. The Labour Party's Bill was not accepted because it was extremely badly drafted. It was simply a copy of a Canadian Bill. This was the level of work put into it by the Labour Party. The Government will introduce its proposals in that regard in the future.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to set before the House the achievements of this Government in my area of responsibility in the two years since we came into office. In our action programme, we promised to build an inclusive society and we are doing so. We promised to bring the old age contributory pension to £100 by 2002 and, as previous speakers mentioned, we are already well on course to achieve that. In addition, in this the UN Year of Older People, my colleagues, the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, and the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Cowen, have taken 15,000 older people out of the tax net and are doubling the medical card eligibility limits for people over 70. This will make a real difference to people.

It shows that we are working as a team across Departments to achieve our objectives unlike the Deputies opposite when they were in government, who spent more time leaking to the newspapers than implementing policies. We have also worked as a team to support carers. I introduced measures in the Social Welfare Act which will improve payments for all people on carer's allowance and will bring in over 3,000 more new people. The money available for the carer's allowance was increased by 40 per cent in one year. My colleagues, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Cowen, and the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, are introducing measures [1107] to make extra respite care available, to support carers' groups and to improve the disabled housing grant so that more people can stay in the community where they belong.

The Tánaiste and I have worked together to make sure that people have a real opportunity to take the jobs which are now available. The live register has fallen by 60,000 since we took office, which is an unprecedented fall. It was one of the promises we made before we came into office. The employment action plan has been very successful in helping our young people into work, training and education. Six out of every ten people referred to FÁS under the employment action plan since last September have left the live register. Youth unemployment is falling at record speed and we are extending the employment action plan to people over 25. I welcome the largest ever seasonally adjusted decrease in the live register of over 4,000 in one month.

We are conscious of the need to support people who have been unemployed for a long time and who will need help to get a job, even in today's climate. I will shortly introduce a special back-to-work scheme for very long-term unemployed people to support them in making the transition back to work. We set up a Cabinet committee on social inclusion, chaired by the Taoiseach, and this has been a great success in co-ordinating social inclusion policies across Departments. As Deputies will be aware, I recently announced that the main poverty targets established in 1997 have been already largely met in the two years since we took office. The Government has set even more ambitious social inclusion targets. In particular, we will cut consistent poverty in half over the next five years.

We have adopted a “families first” approach, quadrupling support for the family mediation service which has increased from two to eight centres since we took office. We massively increased funding for family counselling by approximately 300 per cent and set up a range of family and community centres. We have achieved much in the last two years, but we are not complacent. We know there is much to be achieved in the coming three years. Caring for children is a particular priority area. The arguments about child care have been well rehearsed. We do not need to be convinced of the need for action; we want to make sure that we put in place an equitable and effective solution which meets the needs of all parents in our society and we intend to do this.

Securing the future of our older people is another priority. I will introduce legislation early in the new year to establish a new personal savings retirement account and the Government is very aware of the need to plan for the future of this and the coming generations. I categorically deny Deputy Quinn's assertion that the Government is not planning for the ageing population. Those who are interested in this matter should wait and see.

[1108] Since coming into office we have carefully planned across Departments. We promised to cut taxes, dole queues and crime, and we have achieved all three. We have given back over £1 billion in personal taxes, we have cut the dole queues by 60,000 in two years, and crime is down by at least 20 per cent. Those are independent figures. We are moving to the next phase in our programme of building an inclusive society. We are setting national investment priorities to address social as well as economic needs. As we move into the new millennium, we are building a country we can be proud of, which we can rightly call a republic. I am proud to be part of this Government, which has delivered a huge amount of the commitments we made in our programme for Government within only two years.

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Mr. O'Dea): The major development in adult education in the last year was the publication of the Green Paper, which sets out the role of adult education in promoting competitiveness in employment, addressing poverty and disadvantage, supporting community advancement and participation in society, and meeting the challenges of change. It sets out the case for concerted investment in adult education as a key component in lifelong learning and makes a range of recommendations on how the sector can be developed.

We have already begun the process of implementing some of those recommendations even as we prepare for the publication of a White Paper. An extensive consultation process has been initiated by education and community organisations, national bodies and vocational education committees. This has been supplemented by six regional seminars, hosted by my Department. Written submissions have been invited and a series of national consultative meetings with major stakeholders is scheduled to take place in the coming weeks. The consultation process will culminate in a plenary forum to be held in Dublin Castle in September, to be followed by publication of a White Paper on Adult Education before the end of the year, it is hoped.

In the interim a number of important developments have taken place. We have ensured, for the first time in education, the introduction of a State-funded child care service for participants in VTOS, Youthreach and traveller programmes, in order to remove barriers to access. We have removed the 10 per cent quota limiting participation in VTOS of lone parents, people with disabilities and dependent spouses. We have equalised the rate of training allowances with the back-to-education allowance scheme. In co-operation with FÁS, the local employment services and a consortium of major IT companies, we have secured VTOS participation in an exciting, industry-led, fast-track IT-FIT initiative.

I have established a working group to make recommendations on the implementation of part-time options on VTOS, Youthreach and PLC [1109] programmes. A sum of £500,000 has been provided this year to support 900 places across the three programmes on a pilot basis. This initiative will play an important role in encouraging more flexible delivery in reaching a wider client group who are not in a position to gain access to full-time programmes, and enabling literacy and basic education to be better integrated under VTOS. We have introduced provisions for guidance and introduced expanded national certification for people to qualify as trainers of adult tutors.

When we came to office two years ago, the amount being spent per annum by the previous Government on basic literacy was £815,000. It is now just short of £6 million. Deputy John Bruton lectured and castigated the Government for its alleged lack of courage in taking small decisions which would mean a lot to many people. All Deputy Bruton provided for basic literacy was the grand total of £815,000, even though he had in his possession for six months, but did not publish, an OECD report which revealed that 25 per cent of the adult population had literacy problems. To increase the provision to the level which we have provided was a small decision in the context of a multi-billion pound budget. Why did he not take that decision?

Deputy Bruton presided over a system in which only one in 20 of our school buses carrying children with special needs, physically and mentally disabled, was equipped with a harness, an essential safety measure. The amount allocated by the previous Government for this area in every year since 1993 was £150,000. We have solved this problem by providing £3.4 million. This was another small decision. Why did Deputy Bruton not take it?

Mrs. T. Ahearn: I wish to share my time with Deputy Gormley. The end of term debate is a time when people are entitled to speak about what has had most impact on them in the last year. We listened to many speak with pride of their achievements. What had most impact on me were the three protest marches by people with disabilities, from Parnell Street to the gates of this House, looking for essentials like wheelchairs and access to transport, and the two all-night vigils, again by people in wheelchairs, one outside Heuston Station, to lobby for wheelchair accessible transport to be provided among the 150 new buses, and the other this week, when people in wheelchairs froze in the cold outside Leinster House, seeking the resumption of the Vantastic transport scheme.

We should hang our heads in shame. I agree with the Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, that we are not a proper nation if we do not provide accessible transport for people with disabilities. No one in the House could have seen those protest marches, passed Heuston Station on that cold December night or come into the House this week without a feeling of shame at the most vulnerable in our society having to make these protests. To quote our President, we have failed our [1110] people with disabilities and in the process have seriously damaged our society.

Mr. Gormley: I wish to share my time with Deputy Joe Higgins. As we go into recess the most important issue is Mr. Justice Moriarty's statement that he was precluded from investigating the sale of Glen Ding because he held shares in CRH, and that the Attorney General had informed the party leaders of this matter. The Green Party was not so informed and I thank Deputy John Bruton for correcting the Dáil record. We put forward an amendment – which was defeated by 76 votes to 66 – to the tribunal's terms of reference to have Glen Ding fully investigated. The sequence of events after this is important. The Attorney General then approached Mr. Justice Moriarty, who stated he was precluded from investigating Glen Ding because he held these shares. The Attorney General said that we would get back to him but he would first contact the party leaders. He did so and the party leaders, for their own reasons, said this was all right.

This is an extremely important matter. To quote from the Committee of Public Accounts report:

Following its examination the Committee was not satisfied on a number of matters; specifically, while noting and appreciating the reasons advanced by the Department for not opening the sale to public tender, it did not accept the Department's explanation as credible.

We need a tribunal to investigate Glen Ding. When this was debated in the House, I said we wanted to know why sand and gravel deposits, estimated to be worth a minimum of £48 million, were sold for £1.25 million.

Mr. Higgins (Dublin West): I protest at the Socialist Party and Green Party being routinely and outrageously squeezed out of these debates. The Dáil must meet next week to consider the crisis into which the Moriarty tribunal has been thrown. The incredible position is that the Government consistently misled the Dáil, leaving Deputies in a fool's paradise thinking that Glen Ding could be investigated, when it knew the tribunal chairman had ruled himself out. These are the standards of a tinpot dictatorship.

The Government called for an investigation into the golden circle in Irish politics and business, which was feathering its nest at taxpayers' expense. The Government appointed a chairman who was the owner of a golden egg firmly established in the same nest, and it did not tell us. The leadership of Fine Gael and the Labour Party connived with the Government to keep the truth from the Members of the Dáil and prevented us being aware of the situation. That is an incredible position. The Ceann Comhairle has a responsibility to rectify the wrong that has been done to [1111] Members of the Dáil. The Government must make a statement—

An Ceann Comhairle: As it is now 4.20 p.m. I am obliged by the Order of the Dáil to call on the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke.

Mr. Higgins (Dublin West): I hope the Minister will explain the position to us.

Minister for Public Enterprise (Mrs. O'Rourke): The Government's first priority has been to secure peace in Northern Ireland and to implement fully the Good Friday Agreement. I would like first to recount briefly how we have arrived at the current situation.

I thank the Opposition parties for the way the matter was put forward this morning about the North. The Taoiseach has asked me to convey to the House his apologies. Until about an hour and a half ago he hoped he would have made it back here, but he has not been able to do that. Perhaps that offers a little hope to all of us.

The past two years have seen great progress as well as effort by the two Governments and all the parties concerned. Within a little over three weeks of our return to office, the IRA ceasefire was restored and has been firmly in place. Inclusive negotiations led to the Good Friday Agreement, subsequently endorsed by the people of Ireland, North and South. Substantial progress has been made in implementing large sections of the Agreement. Broadly, in the areas that fall within the responsibility of the two Governments, the Agreement is being substantially implemented. The policing and human rights commissions have been established. Prisoners have been released and the equality agenda is being pursued.

The establishment of all the institutions depends on the formation of an executive. This has been seriously delayed for reasons that are well known. Sinn Féin, in particular, has made the counter argument that there are no preconditions in the Agreement.

Over the past year, the Irish Government, working with the British Government, has made strenuous and continual efforts to clear the obstacles in the way of the implementation of the Agreement. Last December an agreement was reached, for example, on North-South bodies. The Governments undertook initiatives at Hillsborough and Downing Street to try to resolve the issue of what should come first – the executive or the start of the decommissioning process – or whether they could in some way be made to happen together.

Given the increasingly circular and repetitive nature of the arguments, the British Prime Minister, with my support, decided it was necessary to make one final effort to secure implementation of the Agreement before demoralisation, discouragement and dissident violence gained a grip. We [1112] are approaching the height of the marching season, where tension rises and there are maximum opportunities for sectarian violence and for the opponents of the Agreement to destabilise the peace process. Accordingly, an absolute deadline for reaching agreement was set for 30 June, accepting, as is normal in such negotiations, that discussions might run on, as happened on Good Friday, by a day or two.

A preliminary round of negotiations took place last Friday. From that emerged agreement by the parties on three key principles: first, an inclusive executive exercising devolved powers; second, decommissioning of all paramilitary arms by May 2000; and, third, decommissioning to be carried out in a manner determined by the Independent Commission on Decommissioning. In this week's intensive negotiations, the difficulty has centred around the order and sequence in which these commitments need to be implemented.

As President Clinton pointed out at his press conference with President Mubarak of Egypt yesterday, it is difficult to think of any agreement where everyone is agreed on the key principles, and that agreement breaking down over timing and sequencing. He correctly said that such an event would be a tragedy. As far as the Governments are concerned, the precise order or sequencing is not of major intrinsic importance once it is clear that all principles will be implemented and the institutions established within the terms of the Agreement.

In the minds of some, there has been doubt as to the political will of others to establish inclusive partnership institutions. In the minds of others, there has been doubt as to whether there is any real will or commitment to decommissioning. The will of the people is that both should happen.

There was one development of great importance earlier this week, the indication by Sinn Féin that “all participants could succeed in persuading those with arms to decommission them in accordance with the Agreement”. All the discussions are premised on the basis that, in the context of the establishment of an executive, the process of decommissioning can be completed by May.

The importance of this development cannot be overestimated. The British Prime Minister has described it as a “seismic shift”. It represents a sea change in the whole debate and holds out the prospect of permanent peace, reconciliation and removing the gun from Irish politics for good. Actual movement, however, critically depends on the full Agreement and its institutions being put into operation.

As I speak, very difficult discussions are continuing between the two Governments and the parties. It is not possible to predict the outcome, but the House can be assured that whatever the outcome, the Government will continue to do all in its power to bring the full Agreement into force as soon as possible. It represents the only plan and is balanced and comprehensive. It would not be sensible to divert energies into other channels or into working out other alternatives. It is [1113] the Government's judgment that the potential for advancing the Agreement is the only way forward.

Like my colleagues in Government, and I am sure all Members of the House, I wish the Taoiseach and his team and all the other participants every success today in overcoming the remaining obstacles. We look forward to being able to work at an early date with an inclusive executive in the North-South body.

I would like to repeat what I said this morning on behalf of the Taoiseach and the Government. This House will be recalled to progress any legislation that may be necessary to assist the successful completion of the peace process.

I wish you, a Cheann Comhairle, your staff, all Members of this House, all members of the media [1114] and all who work in the two Houses a safe and happy holiday period. I know the Chief Whip would wish me to say that the committees will be working during July and September. Much important legislation is before those committees for debate and ratification.

Mr. Higgins (Dublin West): Perhaps they will look at Glen Ding.

Mrs. O'Rourke: I hear the Deputy. I look forward to seeing all Members back here hale and hearty in September.

Mr. J. Bruton: So no Member will be appointed as Commissioner?

Question put.

Ahern, Dermot.

Ahern, Michael.

Ahern, Noel.

Ardagh, Seán.

Aylward, Liam.

Blaney, Harry.

Brady, Johnny.

Brady, Martin.

Brennan, Matt.

Brennan, Séamus.

Briscoe, Ben.

Browne, John (Wexford).

Byrne, Hugh.

Callely, Ivor.

Carey, Pat.

Collins, Michael.

Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.

Coughlan, Mary.

Daly, Brendan.

Davern, Noel.

de Valera, Síle.

Dennehy, John.

Doherty, Seán.

Ellis, John.

Fahey, Frank.

Fleming, Seán.

Flood, Chris.

Foley, Denis.

Fox, Mildred.

Gildea, Thomas.

Hanafin, Mary.

Haughey, Seán.

Healy-Rae, Jackie.

Jacob, Joe.

Keaveney, Cecilia.

Kelleher, Billy.

Kenneally, Brendan.

Killeen, Tony.

Kirk, Séamus.

Kitt, Michael.

Kitt, Tom.

Lawlor, Liam.

Lenihan, Brian.

Lenihan, Conor.

McCreevy, Charlie.

McDaid, James.

McGennis, Marian.

McGuinness, John.

Martin, Micheál.

Moffatt, Thomas.

Molloy, Robert.

Moloney, John.

Moynihan, Donal.

Moynihan, Michael.

Ó Cuív, Éamon.

O'Dea, Willie.

O'Flynn, Noel.

O'Hanlon, Rory.

O'Keeffe, Batt.

O'Keeffe, Ned.

O'Kennedy, Michael.

O'Malley, Desmond.

O'Rourke, Mary.

Power, Seán.

Roche, Dick.

Ryan, Eoin.

Smith, Brendan.

Smith, Michael.

Wade, Eddie.

Wallace, Dan.

Wallace, Mary.

Walsh, Joe.

Wright, G. V.

Níl

Ahearn, Theresa.

Barnes, Monica.

Barrett, Seán.

Belton, Louis.

Boylan, Andrew.

Bradford, Paul.

Broughan, Thomas.

Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).Bruton, John.

Bruton, Richard.

Burke, Liam.

Burke, Ulick.

Carey, Donal.

Connaughton, Paul.

Cosgrave, Michael.

Crawford, Seymour.

Currie, Austin.

D'Arcy, Michael.

Dukes, Alan.

Durkan, Bernard.

Enright, Thomas.

Farrelly, John.

Ferris, Michael.

Finucane, Michael.

Fitzgerald, Frances.

Flanagan, Charles.[1115]

Níl–continued

Gilmore, Éamon.

Gormley, John.

Gregory, Tony.

Hayes, Brian.

Higgins, Jim.

Higgins, Joe.

Higgins, Michael.

Hogan, Philip.

McGahon, Brendan.

McGinley, Dinny.

McGrath, Paul.

McManus, Liz.

Mitchell, Gay.

Mitchell, Jim.

Mitchell, Olivia.

Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.

[1116] Naughten, Denis.

Neville, Dan.

Noonan, Michael.

O'Shea, Brian.

O'Sullivan, Jan.

Penrose, William.

Perry, John.

Quinn, Ruairí.

Rabbitte, Pat.

Reynolds, Gerard.

Ring, Michael.

Sargent, Trevor.

Shatter, Alan.

Shortall, Róisín.

Stagg, Emmet.

Stanton, David.

Timmins, Billy.

Tellers: Tá, Deputies S. Brennan and Power; Níl, Deputies Barrett and Stagg.

Question declared carried.

The Dáil adjourned at 4.45 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 29 September 1999.