Thursday, 8 December 2005
Financial Resolution No. 5: General (Resumed).
Olwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the budget in this empty House. I will deal with some areas from a local perspective and some from a national perspective.
Transport 21 was emphasised in yesterday's budget, with more detail revealed on it. As I said when the plan was announced, while I support the gist of it, I am concerned that we will not see much action on it. I represent Laoighis-Offaly and live in County Offaly which has been all but ignored in Transport 21. We will benefit in a small way from the N6 Galway to Dublin road but a bypass for Tullamore has been ignored again. There was a brief reference to bypasses in the budget but no specific detail on which projects will be prioritised. I would like to see a start date for the Tullamore bypass. The monitoring committee reported recently to the Midland Regional Authority, stating clearly that there is no start date for the bypass and that it is to be determined within a ten-year plan. It was not clear what plan it was referring to because it is not part of Transport 21.
I find it difficult to raise the Edenderry to Enfield road any other way than when discussing the budget. It comes off the N6 at Enfield and continues for 18 km until it reaches Edenderry, which is the fastest growing town in County Offaly. That road is a series of potholes. Funding had been provided for it but it was never spent. It is a matter to be decided between local authorities but in this instance the only local authority involved is Kildare County Council. There should be a mechanism for roads that service a county other than the county it crosses. No body is responsible if a local authority will not invest funding. This road is crucial to the future of Offaly. The Enfield bypass is improving but that is not much comfort for those who have to turn off it because they are not going to Galway.
These issues should be prioritised when planning for Transport 21. I am disappointed that the budget yesterday did not mention the Tullamore bypass. I did not expect it to mention the Edenderry to Enfield road but both issues are vital for County Offaly and must be addressed.
I welcome the Minister for Finance's announcement on the third and fourth level sectors. It is important for the future of the State that we develop our third level sector better than has been the case to date. It is, however, making up for a lack of investment in recent years. We have treated the PRTLI programme and investment in science and technology at third level in a stop-go fashion. Thankfully, the matter has been addressed in the past two budgets but if foreigners are to be encouraged to attend third level in Ireland and if we want to attract researchers while encouraging our own to remain in the field, a definite funding stream must be provided. Yesterday's announcement was positive and I hope the Minister will ensure people compete for funding in this field. However, the proposal is weak in detail and perhaps the Minister for Education and Science will provide more information in the coming days. I would like to know what the Government intends to do to ensure this proposal is implemented.
The Minister for Finance referred to changes and improvements in universities, wider collaboration and drawing on collective strength, but it must be acknowledged that the third and fourth level sectors do not have the same critical mass as the US, in particular. The third level population in Ireland is small compared to individual universities in the US. Ireland is also competing globally and I hope the proposal will allow us to better compete.
I was extremely disappointed that the further education sector was completely ignored in the Estimates and the budget. As a man who was on the TUI protest outside the House yesterday wondered, what is it about the sector that the Government will not invest in it? It is the most responsive sector, given its ability to react to changes locally. When a new company is set up in a community, the further education college puts on courses quickly to satisfy need. A significant proportion of adults returning to education go through the further education sector and every county has a college of further education.
The McIver report made a number of good recommendations, which were bought into by all the stakeholders, but they have not been progressed over the past two or three years. The Minister for Education and Science stated earlier that she cannot do everything in one go. However, while she may have been in office for only 18 months, the Government parties have been in power for almost nine years and she cannot refer to anything being done in one go. The Government needs to address this issue. More people from disadvantaged backgrounds are entering the third level sector but the further education sector has been failed over recent years.
I welcome that, at last, something is happening in regard to child care. I am surprised the Government parties decided on a cut-off point of six years, especially given that it is their ninth year in office. Children who were born in their first four years in office will not benefit from the scheme and it is a pity the Government chose this cut-off point. I am glad the Government has finally woken up and decided to do something in this area. However, while child care is vital, I would like the Government to place greater emphasis on the establishment of pre-school facilities. Crèches are only one part of the equation and I would prefer if children aged three or four, who have not commenced primary school, went into pre-school education as distinct from attending a crèche or child minder. Unfortunately, that option is not available in many parts of the State.
Pre-school facilities were provided in disadvantaged areas following an initiative implemented a number of years ago but the initiative was not rolled out nationwide. Only 30 or 40 schools have the facilities. However, this sector has been ignored for years and it will take a long time to expand these facilities. The Government needs to address this now and the Minister for Finance needs to develop his child care proposals in the coming months by placing greater emphasis on the provision of appropriate pre-school education.
The decentralisation programme was announced in the Budget Statement two years ago. I would like more commitment and answers on the where, when and how of the programme. Five towns in my constituency expect to benefit. Civil servants have transferred to Portlaoise and Tullamore, which I welcome, but there are negative consequences for towns such as my home town of Birr when national newspapers carry reports that civil servants do not want to move there because they do not think the town has sufficient school and child care places. That results in a bad image of a good town. The town has excellent education facilities and I undertook all my schooling there. Birr also has excellent arts and sports facilities but they are not being promoted in the decentralisation programme. The announcement of the programme has had a negative impact.
The Government missed a significant opportunity yesterday to reintroduce roll-over relief for farmers. It is extremely unfair that a farmer whose land is compulsorily purchased by the State for the building of a road must pay 20% capital gains tax and if he wants to replace this land, he must also pay 9% stamp duty. He must pay 29% tax on a sale he does not want to undertake and that is extremely wrong. There was little point in the Government negotiating a good deal a number of years ago with the IFA only to come along a year later to wipe it out. Nobody wants to give up his land for a road project and this is compounded by having to pay 29% tax. Farmers should be allowed to invest in replacement land without having to pay tax on both transactions.