Dáil debates

Tuesday, 22 November 2005

Estimates for Public Services 2006: Motion (Resumed).

 

Debate resumed on the following motion:

That Dáil Éireann commends the 2006 Estimates for Public Services (Abridged) published by the Minister for Finance on 17 November 2005.

—(Minister for Finance).

7:00 pm

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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The Government has a great facility for raking in ever rising amounts of tax revenue from hard-pressed taxpayers, but in every budget it never fails to add more stealth taxes. That is its speciality. For example, the increases in medical charges announced by the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, mean that the cost of a visit to an accident and emergency department will increase from €55 to €60. This will be a green light for general practitioners and consultants to increase their fees by a similar amount so that on the north and west side of Dublin, a single visit to a GP will rise from the current price range of between €45 and €50 to a new level of probably €50 to €55 per visit. A family above the medical card limit with two children suffering a winter 'flu episode may well end up spending more than €600 for a few visits each to the GP plus medication. There is hardly any country in the European Union where doctor's visits are as exorbitant as in Celtic tiger Ireland.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children is also raising the cost of public and private beds in hospitals. This again will provide a green light to health insurers to raise premiums further. The Government talks the headline talk of low tax rates for income and corporation taxes but the hidden stealth charges for absolute essentials such as medical insurance and GP fees are an enormous burden on ordinary families. The Government cannot live down the fact that more than half those who pay tax pay some or all of it at the 42% rate. In addition, people on the 42% rate, by and large, have no entitlements so they must have extensive costly private medical insurance.

The strongly growing economy has allowed the Government to raise significant amounts of tax revenue. The Celtic tiger has benefited most of us, especially in terms of lower unemployment and higher living standards. There are problems and many of these are due to Government mismanagement. These include many aspects of the health service, poor and inadequate public transport and hopelessly congested roads, especially for daily commuters.

There are two overall priorities for economic policy. One is to develop adequate strategies to ensure continued growth rates at similar levels to this year. This will not be easy and will require much more than continuing to follow the same sectoral strategies that have got the economy to where it is today. The economy has changed and so has the external economic environment.

The other priority is to develop better strategies to distribute the benefits of economic growth more evenly and efficiently. The rising economic tide has left many boats adrift. The booming economy has also led to many negative effects on quality of life for most people, even if overall most of us are better off. Sky high child care costs, traffic congestion, hours spent commuting, and €55 for a short GP visit are just some of the negative effects of our badly managed economic growth.

One of the numerous gaps in the Estimates is provision for a public sector pay deal for the second half of next year. In similar circumstances, previous Ministers for Finance have provided a round but significant sum for a successor pay agreement in the public sector. We must remember that public servants are subject, as much as anybody else, to rip-off Ireland and the astronomical costs of living people experience here.

A few years ago, the then Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, made great play of introducing a multi-annual spending framework for capital spending. In fact, a bad situation has worsened. The amount of underspending by many key Departments has increased each year. The Tánaiste's Department of Health and Children underspent its capital budget by a full 10%, the maximum permitted capital roll-over, in her case €56 million. The overall underspend and roll-over was €285 million. With a crisis of capacity in many parts of the health service and many sick patients suffering mentally and physically on the Tánaiste's ubiquitous trolley system, she proves incapable of spending the capital budget allocated to her.

Within days of the ridiculous relaunch of some of the country's old transport plans, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, revealed that the Government's underspend in transport infrastructure has risen again in 2005. A total of €100 million was underspent in 2005. The suspiciously round figure of an even €100 million tells the accountant in me that this figure is dodgy. In the old days when one was looking for fraud — the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs might know this——

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I know nothing about fraud.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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——round sum accounting was always frowned on or viewed as a sign of difficulty. The round sum accounting in the underspend on transport in the Estimates is highly suspicious. The real figure is probably more. We need to know the full story about this. It cannot just all be saved up for another glam-rock launch on 7 December. I do not know how many relaunches people can take of Transport 21.

It is worth recalling the series of much ballyhooed pseudo-initiatives, so to speak, that the Taoiseach and his Ministers have launched to convince the electorate that they will deliver much needed infrastructure. Apart from the multi-annual spending framework of the former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, the National Development Finance Agency was also set up. This is another quango with more consultants and more fat salaries. We can well ask where is the beef and what good has it done.

Public-private partnerships were an earlier big idea of the former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, and the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney. Significant amounts of money have been spent on Civil Service salaries and much more on consultants' fees, yet what have we to show for it? We have schools that cost significantly more and took longer to build than in the ordinary way. We also have a Dublin waste treatment works that literally stinks parts of Ringsend on a bad day. However, unlike the National Development Finance Agency, public-private partnerships will have an effect. Not satisfied with what the M50 toll bridge extracts from motorists, the Taoiseach and his Ministers have a plan to have at least two tolls on every major road out of Dublin. Public-private partnerships are the means to do this and the plan is making progress. The Kilcock to Kinnegad motorway section will be a very expensive road. The Government has a significant amount of money, between €1.5 billion and €2 billion, to play with on budget day, 7 December, but Ministers have been out on the weekend talk shows trying to depress expectations.

The Labour Party has just published a detailed document on which we have worked for over two years. It sets out a humane framework for children being minded by their parents who are encouraged to spend time with them. In the Estimates for 2006, child benefit is estimated to cost €1.96 billion. A quarter of that would be €500 million, the same as the cost of the SSIA scheme. That would only provide between €35 and €45 per month for child care. If that is what parents get, the Government will be run out of it and it will deserve to be.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Cork South Central, Green Party)
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I wish to share time with Deputies Ó Caoláin and McHugh.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Cork South Central, Green Party)
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I am glad to be back in the Chamber. I do not seem to have graduated to the rank of Teachta Dála non grata yet. It is fairly apposite that I am taking part in this debate because much of today's dissension centred around the difficulties that exist in the way we dishonestly portray Government expenditure in terms of its projection and eventual analysis as to whether public money has been properly spent or not. In a case in point, the Government made promises for years on a particular funding project that has yet to come to pass. The Minister has probably included it in some form in the Estimates. The way the Estimates are put together makes it difficult to establish whether it is there.

This afternoon a debate took place on national radio on the quality of literature. It centred around the Taoiseach's daughter, who is a popular author. I will not enter a debate on whether her work rates as high literature. The Book of Estimates would be extremely difficult to define if we were to consider it as a work of literature. Is it fiction or faction? It certainly is not fact. It contains so many loose elements it is impossible for those of us on this side of the House and the public to properly analyse what it means on Government policies and funding important public expenditure.

If this were a review of a cookbook, one would find that half of the ingredients required for the recipes were missing. It is an empty document full of holes. We are supposed to fill in the gaps based on the experience of previous Estimates and some form of educated guesswork on what the Minister for Finance is likely to do on budget day.

The Book of Estimates contains some indications that the Government has a fairly obtuse sense of priorities. Funding for environmental protection has decreased despite a 13% increase for the Environmental Protection Agency. Money to be spent on water services, air quality and other forms of pollution control are dramatically reduced. To me that indicates where that particular priority lies in the Government's policy scheme. Capital funding for health, which is meant to be a Government priority, and transport is no higher than it was in the previous year. No percentage increase whatsoever is indicated, unless the Minister has rabbits in hats that he wants to reveal on budget day. Probably that is the case.

Considering the longer-term picture the Minister chooses to reveal in the multi-annual envelope for capital expenditure on those and other Government spending programmes also gives reason to be worried and disconcerted. This is particularly due to the increasing use of private money in capital acquisition during the years to come, starting slowly and increasing up to 2009. I must admit I feel extremely queasy about this intent of the Government, particularly regarding education. As a member of the Committee of Public Accounts, I read the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on the failure of the pilot scheme on education, the 18% higher costs and the fact that going deeper and further down this road will not give the taxpayer any greater value for money. It will give private business interests more of a say in public services than they deserve and more than is healthy for our society and body politic.

I will speak in general terms for the remainder of my contribution. The Minister may not be aware of an American book, Fast Food Nation, which discusses the commercialisation of the education sector in the United States. Private interests investing capital, taking over the management of schools and putting in vending machines has a circular effect, not only to the disadvantage to the education of the pupils in such schools, but ultimately to their health and social deterioration.

The combination of the two elements that make up the Government means it has embarked on the same roads, producing a Book of Estimates that can only be read as a fictitious document and which will not lead us in the political direction required to balance social inequities in this country. I regret to say that regardless of what the Minister for Finance produces on 7 December, it will not fill the yawning gaps in this Book of Estimates.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Ordinary citizens have a right to ask what these Estimates actually represent and what they will mean in practice. Once again the Government is attempting to blind the people with apparently massive spending figures. The money is being spent, but are the services being delivered? For many thousands of our people, the answer quite simply is "No".

This evening, people in Cavan and Monaghan in my constituency learned of another blow to the health services in those counties. The proposals from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the national hospitals office are an attempt to set in stone the scandalous situation that led directly to the death of Patrick Walsh because he could not be operated on in Monaghan General Hospital. They completely ignored the demand from the Cavan and Monaghan consultant surgeons in September for resources to be provided by the Government to allow Monaghan General Hospital to return to fully on-call status. Those resources are available. What is lacking is the political will. It is indicative of the Government's flawed approach across the public services.

The Estimates for health show another rise after successive years of rises, each failing to keep pace with current health care inflation. Consider the disaster area that is our health service today. Despite the dedication of health care workers at all levels, the system cannot cope. The open letter to the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children from Dr. Seamus O'Reilly, consultant medical oncologist, has again exposed the reality of a fundamentally flawed health service. Promised beds have not been delivered, the promised elimination of hospital waiting lists has not happened, the roll-out of BreastCheck and other cancer services has not yet taken place. Dr. O'Reilly serves a population of 500,000 people and states the computer systems available to him are inadequate. As a result, 10% of cancer patients under his care in the region are not recorded on the computer generated list. However, €195 million of taxpayers' money was squandered on the failed PPARS and FISP IT systems.

There is another much more fundamental reason our health system is in such a state and public expenditure is not used to best effect. We have a two-tier public private health system in which an underfunded public system subsidises a private system, and the Tánaiste wants to subsidise the private system even more. The expenditures and tax breaks for private hospitals are to be continued and lands on public hospital sites are to be gifted for the construction of private profit-driven health facilities. The Minister claims it would be too costly for the State to provide hundreds of additional public hospital beds as promised. However, the Government does not know the cost of its tax breaks for private hospitals, which will form the basis of this new plan.

With this scheme, the Tánaiste has also shredded what is left of the Fianna Fáil 2002 general election manifesto health commitments. That manifesto claimed it wanted "the end of the two-tier health system", yet the Tánaiste denies we have a two-tier system. At the heart of Government, in the biggest spending Department and the most important of our public services, is a fundamental disagreement about the basis on which services are being provided.

This Estimates process is essentially a charade, as I described it this afternoon. From the figures we can discern some of the Government's intentions. The increase for child benefit is inadequate and unless it is revised upwards between now and budget day, the budget will be a severe disappointment for low-income families with children. Yesterday the Taoiseach attempted to dampen expectations on child care in the forthcoming budget. Child care will be the litmus test of the budget and the Government has so far failed on that score. It was the biggest omission from last December's budget. It must not fail again.

Let it be clear that we do not want a repeat of the pre-election national health strategy of 2001, a bundle of promises which remain largely unfulfilled. We must await the budget to see whether the Government will deliver the comprehensive child care package it has promised. This would include measures to increase the supply of quality child care, which is accessible to all who need it and support for those using existing child care services. I hope both Ministers will heed these important points and use their influence during the remaining weeks to budget day.

Paddy McHugh (Galway East, Independent)
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It is difficult to take an overall view of the situation presented to us in the Estimates published last week because the picture is incomplete. While we have an outline of gross current and capital spending, we are at a loss due to the absence of information on tax and other receipts. Until we have the complete picture we will not know if we are dealing with a surplus or a deficit as we face the budgetary cycle.

While the Minister for Finance was dealing with spending the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children took the opportunity to announce a 9% rise in the cost of accident and emergency visits and short-term stays, rising from €55 to €60, raising approximately €25 million. This is a revenue-raising measure, which it was hoped would be overshadowed by the publication of the Estimates.

Not only is the picture incomplete, it is further muddied by the inclusion of a number of factors that would be more appropriate in the budget, such as €400 million for the nursing homes refund at a time when this House has not been informed of the details of this measure. Although there was a monumental cock-up, the blame has not stopped at anyone's desk. There is no shortage of desks at which it might stop, as this situation continued for 29 years, during which time seven Ministers with responsibility for health from the Fianna Fáil Party, the Fine Gael Party and the Labour Party held office.

The increase in overseas development aid to 0.47% of GDP was another issue that landed the Government in controversy. The Taoiseach's commitment to increase overseas aid to 0.7% of GDP by 2007 was ill-advised. That the commitment was given at a time when Ireland sought a favour from the developing countries smacks of dishonesty.

The Estimates show an increase of 4.5% in capital spending. After the fanfare surrounding the announcement of Transport 21, it is bewildering to see how such an increase will fund the grandiose notions contained in that plan. In my view it cannot be done. I make a plea regarding Transport 21 and I am pleased the Minister for Community, Gaeltacht and Rural Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, is present to hear it. The western rail corridor was included in Transport 21 but phase one will not be completed for five years. This smacks of procrastination of the highest order as this project could proceed immediately. In contrast with other transportation programmes, there is no lead-in time and no planning permission, environmental impact study or public hearing and no land acquisition is required. Those experienced in rail building state that phase one, as far as Claremorris, could be completed in one year. There is no reason for the further five year wait after we have fought for 30 years. I urge the Minister to make funding available so that this vital infrastructure is made available to serve the west so the benefits can help the region develop.

The overall figures in this debate are enormous, all funded by the taxpayer. In the past and in recent times there has been a dreadful record on accountability for the expenditure and waste of public funds. It is disappointing the Minister has not brought forward proposals to regulate and safeguard the expenditure of public funds. The taxpayer is the donor of the funds and is entitled to expect the maximum safeguards to be put in place by Government. It is unacceptable that money continues to be wasted in the manner we have seen highlighted by the recent programme, "Rip-Off Ireland", featuring Eddie Hobbs.

We need accountability for investment in infrastructure and services. The health service is a case in point. In the past four years the cost of running the health services has grown from €7.7 billion to €12.5 billion. There is no obvious improvement in the service. Accident and emergency units are still in a shocking state and much more than a lack of funding is wrong with the health services. The Government should ensure audits are carried out so that value for money is obtained for all investments in the State.

I remind the Minister that Tuam town council awaits his return with clarification on the status of the Tuam hospital project. The people of north-east Galway await the announcement that finance to facilitate its commencement is being provided.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Mar is eol don Teachta, agus mar a dúirt mé go poiblí cheana, níl aon chinneadh déanta maidir leis an teach altranais i dTuam. Ní raibh an t-eolas a tugadh ar an raidió cruinn. I will revert to the Deputy on the last matter but no decision has been made on the health facility in Tuam.

It is amazing how eaten bread is soon forgotten. When the Labour Party and Fine Gael left Government the spend on national roads was €250 million or €270 million per year. Next year we will spend €1.375 billion. The Opposition accepts the Government is spending money but claims it does not get value for money. I refer to the road from Galway to Dublin, which Deputy McHugh and I know very well. I have been a Member of the House since 1989, when half of the bypass of Athlone was built. Since that time, until two years ago, only the road from the M50 to Kilcock was added.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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The Minister's party was in power for most of those years.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Let us consider what is happening now. The road to Kinnegad will open next month, the road from Kinnegad to Kilbeggan is under construction, the road from Kilbeggan to Athlone is to start next year and the road from Deoch Uisce in Galway to Athlone is due to commence in 2007 at the latest. That road will be completed in five years — Deputies can check the NRA website if they do not believe me. That is how far we have moved on that road.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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In 15 years.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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In the first ten years, including the years the current Opposition was in government, only small improvements were made.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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The Opposition was only in government for two of those years.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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By getting the economy right, we managed to accelerate to such a rate that the rest of the road will be completed in the next five years. Let us take another road, from Limerick to Letterkenny——

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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Why does the Minister not take the M50?

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I often take the M50, as I did last night. It is a fine road and we would like some of those in the west.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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It is not a fine road at 6 o'clock.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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Did the Minister go through the toll bridge or does the ministerial car not have to pay?

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I do not own the car so I would not pay.

Photo of Liam TwomeyLiam Twomey (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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Flash the badge.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I arrived at the bridge last night coming from Galway to the south of the city. I often go through the toll bridge and when I am obliged to pay a toll, I pay like every other citizen. I pay all my taxes and tolls. If I do not own the car, I do not pay the toll.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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Does the Minister not have a State car?

9:00 pm

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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The car I am driven in is registered to the Garda Síochána, as it was when the Labour Minister was driven in it. I have no control over whatever arrangement the Garda Síochána has made. The driver is a member of the Garda Síochána and I do not interfere with his business, which is a good principle. It would be wrong of me to interfere with his professional competence in driving the car.

Consider the road from Limerick to Letterkenny, recalling the spend in 1997 and the fact that €100 million is being spent on that road in this calendar year. Those two roads give Deputies some idea of how, not only in terms of money, but also in terms of delivery, investment in capital projects has accelerated. It is also a fact that major investment is taking place in rail. Not so many years ago we were trying to bring the rail network up to a safe standard. Next year we will spend €435 million on capital investment in rail. That means that with national roads, not excluding county roads, and what we will spend on rail, the total investment is €1.8 billion. That is not to mention private investment on top of that figure, which brings in another amount of money.

What are we getting for that? Again, we are getting results. We will be getting a train to Galway every hour at busy times of the day and every two hours at other times, something that those of us who live in the west have dreamt about and worked towards for a long time. We are also getting the western rail corridor. I had a meeting with Iarnród Éireann regarding the section north of Claremorris. We discussed the fencing and clearing of the line to protect the valuable right of way all the way to Collooney.

The timescales in the transport plan will be adhered to. The process is slightly more complicated than, as some have facetiously suggested, simply ripping up the old track and replacing it with new track. Deputy McHugh knows this. He is not a simple man. He knows that the railway line has not been able to carry trains travelling at 50 mph for many years. In upgrading the track from Ennis to Athenry, the permanent track must be replaced, including sleepers and rails, and continuously welded track will have to be put in its place. It will be a far cry from what was there and to put the track back the way it was would be of no use to either Deputy McHugh or to me.

Another issue to be dealt with is the fact that there were a large number of accommodation crossings on that line. As we speed up the trains, that issue must be dealt with properly. The Deputy knows this, because he knows the line and all the small roads around Tubber in south Galway. He knows that there were a number of level crossings on the line, some of which are on the major road. There is a crossing in Craughwell, two near Ardrahan and a number of crossings on the minor roads, all of which must be upgraded and replaced. As well as that, the stations must be improved in such a way to ensure they can handle the passengers.

The idea that we just go along the line, rip up the track and put down new track is a gross oversimplification of what must be done. This reminds me of what catches many people out when they build their own homes. They are told that the blocks will be laid and the roof put up within six or eight weeks and they think they will have the house completed in six months, but as Deputy McHugh knows, between one thing and another and all the finishing work, it invariably takes longer.

We have set realistic timescales and have also had to spread the money over many projects. The development will be completed in stages in 2008, 2011 and 2014. In 2014, the railway line will be open all the way to Claremorris and then we will look at the section north of that point which will in the meantime be preserved, fenced and remain available for further development. It is the largest railway re-opening ever to take place in this State.

I was a little taken aback by Deputy Ó Caoláin who said that the child benefit rise in the Book of Estimates is very small. The rise is zero because social welfare increases, and I would have thought Opposition Deputies would know this by now, are always announced on budget day and always have been, no matter who is in Government. All that the small increase in the Book of Estimates accounts for is the increase in the number of children in the country and, therefore, the number of recipients of the payments.

If we are going to debate issues in this House, we should base the debate on reasonable knowledge and an understanding of what the Book of Estimates is about. I accept that it is complicated. One sees a figure falling in one year — I had the same problem when I was in Opposition until it was explained to me — and one presumes there has been a decrease in funding. However, sometimes the previous year's figures contained an exceptional item and sometimes a figure increases from year to year for the same reason. When we try to explain these things in detail, people often do not want to know because it gets in the way of a good story.

I would like to see a much more detailed debate on the Estimates. It is disappointing that it will be next June before we go through them line by line. I would like to see that happen much earlier in the year and it should happen after the budget and publication of the Revised Estimates Volume. At that stage, we should sit down and go through the Estimates line by line with all relevant information provided and discuss in detail the financing of the country for the year.

For my part, I have always been willing to engage in full and open debate and to explain exactly where every figure in my Estimate comes from. I have explained that the large increase in the Estimate for my Department is partly accounted for by the proposed increase in the number of participants in the rural social scheme from the current 1,900 to the projected 2,500.

I would love to have had more time to contribute to this debate and I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence. Tá go leor le plé agus go leor eolais agus ceisteanna polasaí ann. Tá súil agam go ndéanfar plé dáiríre air seo seachas plé polaitiúil. Tá deá-scéal agus dúshláin ann agus ba cheart dúinn breathnú ar an dá rud.

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. With the permission of the House, I wish to share time with Deputy O'Connor.

I wish to begin by commenting on the vote for the Department of Foreign Affairs. It is probable that not many people will refer to it but I am very please that we will see record expenditure on official development assistance in 2006. The allocation this year puts us firmly on the road to reaching the 0.5% interim target that the Government set for 2007 spending. We are well on our way to meeting the UN target of spending 0.7% of gross national product on aid by 2012, with an interim target of 0.6% in 2010. It is well realised that the Irish people are extremely generous in their support for official development assistance.

The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, of which I have the honour of being a member, has worked very hard to ensure an all-party consensus on the issue of overseas development assistance. I know that the contribution the committee made fed into the contribution which the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have made at the UN and at other forums.

I welcome the contribution this year of €12 million to support our emigrants. That is spent substantially on frontline services and emigrant organisations that do extremely valuable work with emigrants who left Ireland in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, many of whom are in their older years now and have enormous personal problems. I pay tribute to organisations such as DION and the Federation of Irish Societies, which I met in my capacity as co-chairman of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, and I look forward to hearing from them again at the plenary session of the body next week in Edinburgh.

I compliment the Minister for Foreign Affairs on pursuing the idea of setting up a volunteer corps. Such a corps, similar to the peace corps in the United States, will provide a very useful avenue for young professionals and those not yet trained to contribute to development projects in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Lest I be accused of being ungrateful, I also thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs in my capacity as vice chairman of the European Movement — members will be aware that Deputy Quinn is the chairman — for the very significant increase in grant aid to the movement. It will enable the organisation to engage in wide-ranging awareness programmes within civil society over the next few years, especially during the so-called period of reflection leading to the next stage of the debate on the European constitution.

On the education sector, my own pet area, record increases have been announced for 2006 with €570 million extra for the Department this year, bringing the total spend to €7.2 billion. I am pleased that the commitment in the programme for Government to reducing the pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools will be adhered to with a reduction of one point in the coming academic year and further point in the following year.

Fourth level education, which is research and development, needs particular assistance. Ireland has traditionally been weak in that area but we are now finding our feet and I am pleased a figure for that purpose is embedded in the Book of Estimates. I hope further allocations will follow at a later stage.

By child care we mean early childhood care and education. Much investment has been made in child care and early education but it is not possible to roll out a whole new sector of education in one or even two years so it should not be promised. I was a member of the National Economic and Social Council working group, with Deputies English and Penrose from the Opposition benches, which recommended that the whole sector be rolled out over a ten-year period with a five-year review ranging across parental leave, maternity leave, tax breaks, addressing the supply side and providing early education. I look forward to the Government building on a solid supply side foundation and I look forward to a burgeoning sector of early education and child care over the next ten years or so.

Photo of Charlie O'ConnorCharlie O'Connor (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Carey for his speech, which was interesting. I welcome the Book of Estimates and look forward to the budget in 15 days' time. I acknowledge the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Tim O'Malley, whose work I admire. I am confident a Fianna Fáil-led administration, with our colleagues in the Progressive Democrats, will deliver what people want in this budget.

Colleagues have highlighted the increases in the Estimates for the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Education and Science and Social and Family Affairs. With regard to the last, we must understand there are people in all communities who need an extra lift and I have always had a strong commitment to social inclusion, following as I do Chris Flood whom I succeeded as Tallaght-based Fianna Fáil Deputy for Dublin South-West. He pioneered many things evident in my constituency and throughout the country and it is important to continue that work. I have described the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, as revolutionising the Department and he has an opportunity this year to make a real difference with the money available to him. The need to examine fuel costs further and the consequent challenges for many families will be apparent to all Deputies and I am confident the Minister will do so.

Like Deputy Carey I have a strong interest in education, not only in Dublin. I hope the Minister for Education and Science, apart from dealing with other necessary and worthwhile programmes, will use the money available to her to enhance the building programme for our schools. I told the Minister I had visited St. Dominic's school in my constituency which was established 35 years ago and does a great job for the people of Tallaght. The building, however, is beginning to deteriorate. I can talk proudly about progress made in many schools in my constituency in recent years such as the new extension in Bohernabreena in Glenasmole and many projects in Killinarden, but there are still schools that need special attention, a point which is made to me when I visit them. It is not satisfactory to have schools that still need that level of attention and I hope the Minister will consider it.

I am also impressed by progress on programmes such as Early Start, one of which exists in Killinarden in Tallaght, where youngsters from disadvantaged families are given an opportunity to get used to school at an early age. We should support that strongly.

I will not be able to say much on health matters in a few minutes and I am aware Deputy Twomey is present who has many views on the health services. I live in a major population centre with a major hospital which was built seven years ago. Six years ago I had my own health challenges which I was able to overcome with the help of the local hospital. This year the Estimates provide €12.6 billion for health which is reasonable for health services. People say management is just as important as money but even tonight I received calls about people in another general hospital in Dublin so funding challenges remain. I look forward to supporting the debate on 7 December.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I am amazed to hear the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs speaking as if all roads lead out of Dublin to another capital city in the country. He is a patient man and has waited 15 years into his political career to see improvements in the road from Dublin to Galway so he obviously thinks that is a reasonable timetable. He described in great detail how fantastic that road now is. When the new bypass opens at Enfield, I suggest the Minister gets off at the first roundabout to drive 18 km to Edenderry and then tell me what he thinks of the transport system.

Deputy O'Connor said that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs would revolutionise the social welfare system. He did not revolutionise the transport system in County Offaly when he was Minister for Transport. It is not what I wanted to speak about but the Minister has forced me to do so. The road from Edenderry to Enfield is a disaster. I received a puncture on it a few months ago and virtually everybody living in that area has raised the issue with all the public representatives but nothing has been done. In consideration of the Estimates we are told it is an issue for the National Roads Authority but it is an issue the Government has failed to address. It is very difficult to get responses on it in this House because I am repeatedly told it is a matter for the local authorities concerned. I advise the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, the Minister for Transport and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to drive to the first interchange at Enfield to see what the transport infrastructure is like in other parts of the country because it leaves a lot to be desired.

The Minister also talks about the largest ever reopening of our rail system but it is not reopened yet. We might be able to call it the largest ever when something happens but at present it is a promise that was only made four weeks ago. The public will be sceptical about the completion date. When he is revolutionising the rail system, the Minister might go to Tullamore and see a person in a wheelchair having wooden planks put on the track so that they can cross over to get a train to Galway or Dublin. They wait for staff at the station to bring out a piece of wood and put it across the tracks, which would be illegal for anybody else to do, and they are wheeled across the railway line. I do not think that amounts to revolutionising the railway system and if we cannot address basic issues like this, we are in serious trouble.

I want to speak principally on the Estimate for the Department of Education and Science which shows an increase of €530 million in expenditure for next year.

As this is a considerable amount of money, resources should be improved significantly in schools and colleges as a result of this expenditure. I must examine what an extra €530 million will do and where taxpayers' money will be allocated in the education system. First, the national educational and psychological service is being allocated an extra €2,000 for 2006. In real terms, when considered against inflation, this is a sharp cut precisely at a time when education spending is being increased. Allocating an additional €2,000 to NEPS is derisory, given the crucial service it provides. Already over the course of 2005, access to the service by NEPS has narrowed. At the beginning of the year, 1,522, or 46% of all primary schools in the State had no NEPS psychologist assigned to them. Last month, I discovered that this figure has increased to 1,663, or 51% of all primary schools. These figures can only increase over the coming year, with the predictable negative consequences for children.

The NEPS service is important because it undertakes vital psychological evaluations of children with special educational needs or those experiencing difficulties at school. However, access to psychological services for these children will be curtailed over the coming year. Over the course of 2006, fewer children will be assessed and fewer schools will be covered by the service. It is an economical way to do things, because if a child does not get the assessment he or she needs, the service cannot be provided for him or her afterwards. I question the Minister about her motives in that regard.

Taking into account the extra €2,000 the service has been allocated, we should move on with the remaining €529,998,000 additional expenditure. The national educational welfare board has been allocated an additional €312,000 towards its operating costs for 2006. This fractional increase in funding fails to recognise the important work of the NEWB or the fact that since its establishment, it has existed on a skeleton staff.

Under Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, the number of children failing to make the transition from primary to secondary education since 1997 has increased by 36%, now standing at more than 1,000 children per annum. The Government's report on early school leaving indicates that up to 60% of second level students in some areas leave school before the leaving certificate. It is clear that the Government is failing to tackle the problem of early school drop-out. Children who leave school early can suffer negative consequences for the rest of their lives, yet the Government continues to underfund the national educational welfare board whose responsibility it is to encourage and support regular school attendance.

The NEWB has estimated that up to 330 educational welfare officers are required so that a full service can be offered to all schools in the State. However, two years since its inception and launch, funding has been allocated for the recruitment of just 63 educational welfare officers. At the end of June this year, the NEWB had 11,653 cases on its books. This means that each welfare officer has an average of 185 cases with which to deal. One officer cannot be expected to deal effectively with 185 children and their parents in different schools in trying to get to the root causes of poor school attendance.

Children who are allowed to fall through the cracks in our education system often never again engage with formal education. The Government's response is just to allocate a small amount of additional funding, which may just about keep services at their current level, but allows for no increase. There will be no greater intervention in 2006 to help children at risk of early school leaving. NEPS and NEWB are both crucial services provided by the Department of Education and Science, yet funding for these services is at a standstill. Of the additional €530 million being allocated to the Department of Education and Science for 2006, there is still more than €529,686,000 outstanding after the tiny additional awards to these agencies. Where is the remaining money going? It is not going towards the alleviation of disadvantage at third level. It is getting just an extra €18,000 for 2006 in the Estimates as published. It is not going towards the schools building programme, which is static and receiving no increase. Neither is it going towards funding centres for young offenders, which is being cut by 8%.

In 2005, the Minister wasted €12 million of taxpayers' money on temporary accommodation because her Department had not delivered on new suitable and permanent school buildings. Next year, temporary accommodation will take another big chunk of additional funding due to the lack of planning and forward thinking in the provision of new school buildings. In our examination of the additional funding allocated to the Department, there is still more than €500 million remaining. The further education sector will see none of this.

The Government continues to fail to recognise the potential offered by the further education sector and it has not implemented any of the recommendations of the McIver report which has simply gathered dust in the Department for the past two years. Further education plays an important role, bringing educational opportunities to thousands each year in all parts of the country. A higher percentage of mature students return to education through the VEC and PLC route, gaining valuable qualifications that enable them to return to the workplace or change employment. In addition, the further education sector can devise new courses at short notice, providing training for people in business-related skills that are constantly changing and required in their communities. However, to do this properly, the sector needs greater flexibility, funding, autonomy and support, and 2006 will see none of these improvements in Government support for the further education sector.

In regard to class sizes, despite the Minister's claims to the contrary, the Estimates indicate that seriously overcrowded classrooms at primary level will continue for 2006 and beyond. The extra teaching posts announced are merely a small step in addressing the national problem of overcrowding in our schools. With more than 73,000 primary school children in classes of more than 30, and almost 5,000 children in classes of more than 35, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats are years away from making good on their 2002 election promises. Some 250 teachers for 2006 across more than 3,000 primary schools nationally is a drop in the ocean. From where will the classrooms for these teachers come?

The 2006 Estimates signal an increase in funding under the heading of other grants and services. However, this funding is spread so widely over so many important areas that I am concerned it will not be adequate. I welcome the increase in capitation fees. However, the Minister has once more ignored the issue of physical education because the amount of money provided will not allow schools without physical education facilities to develop these facilities. This funding covers everything from the provision of equipment for special education, special assistance for schools in disadvantaged areas, the grants to primary school management bodies, aids towards the education of children of migrant workers and refugees and the substance abuse programme. All these vital services have been overlooked.

I am particularly concerned about the low level of investment in the training of management boards, especially in light of the publication of the damning Ferns Report. In 2004, the total amount of money invested in primary management was the equivalent of an average investment of €13.60 per board member. School boards of management have important responsibilities to children enrolled in each school. Training is needed and should be provided in meeting these responsibilities.

I would like to refer to the youth work sector, which is understandably frustrated by the Estimates. It has resorted to describing itself as the Cinderella of the education sector. The amount of money provided this year is derisory and will not allow it to implement the youth work development plan as it had hoped. While representatives from the Department were involved in drawing up the plan, it cannot fulfil its potential without the necessary funding.

Photo of Liam TwomeyLiam Twomey (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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The saddest aspect of the health services throughout 2005 and continuing into 2006 is that Fianna Fáil has finally thrown in the towel on providing any form of health service. It is allowing the Progressive Democrats to privatise everything in the health service, including out-of-hours services and home help services, and public hospitals are on the road to being privatised. If the Minister had bothered to carry out a cost benefit analysis of the ongoing running costs of these facilities, he would understand it is not a great way to spend public money.

The best way to develop private medicine is to let the new private hospitals compete with each other and with the public service. Supersizing the present uncompetitive private system by band-aiding it on to an inefficient public system will not work in the long term. It will be disastrous in the short term as far as taxpayers are concerned. Neither patients nor taxpayers will benefit from this system. The €200 million which will be forgone in tax concessions to provide 1,000 beds will be a drop in the ocean compared to the ongoing running costs of these hospitals. It amazes me that Fianna Fáil, which claims to be so socialist-minded, is allowing this development to go ahead without a major public debate. It surprises me that it has disregarded the importance of the health service to the people of this country. It also amazes me that senior civil servants in the Department of Finance, who should know better, are putting their names to these types of proposals and allowing the Minister, Deputy Cowen, to just rubber-stamp the proposals. This is a huge amount of money and what could happen in the future is of serious concern to taxpayers.

Debate adjourned.