Wednesday, 4 October 2006
Private Members' Business
Public Expenditure: Motion (Resumed).
I am supporting the amendment and my initial comments will be specifically about the motion tabled by the Fine Gael and Labour Party Members. They have endeavoured to use the annual report of the Comptroller and Auditor General in an opportunistic manner. They know well that it is an annual report, yet in many ways they are trying to use it as a battering ram with which to knock the Government.
Some of the others who signed the motion may not have studied the Comptroller and Auditor General's report and probably will not comment on it one way or another. However, the motion as tabled by Fine Gael and Labour is grossly inaccurate, particularly when it refers to "the ongoing recurrence of serious tax evasion". The motion also refers to value for money as though the Government is not responding in that regard. Members of the Committee of Public Accounts will realise that does not relate to the committee's procedures. Every year, issues arise that are highlighted in the annual report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Each and every one of those matters comes before the committee to be scrutinised in full. That is both correct and appropriate.
During 2005, the year covered by the Comptroller and Auditor General's report, total expenditure by the State was in the region of €45 billion, yet the amount referred to in the report is a small fraction of that. By and large, the vast majority of programmes and projects delivered as a result of Exchequer expenditure are well implemented by Accounting Officers, Secretaries General and other senior civil servants. Only a small minority of cases come to the attention of the Comptroller and Auditor General and are brought before the Committee of Public Accounts. The manner in which the motion is worded, however, would make many Accounting Officers feel that the vast majority of their work is not competent or good, yet nothing could be further from the truth. In the vast majority of cases, we find that expenditure is carried out in an efficient and practical manner.
The Comptroller and Auditor General's report should be put in context for those who want to use the motion for their own ends without examining it. It is an annual report which highlights issues on a year by year basis, but not necessarily the same issues. The motion suggests that nothing ever happens as a result of this annual report, but members of the Committee of Public Accounts know that is not true by a long way. It is worth mentioning the procedures in place. After the report is published, various Accounting Officers from Departments eventually appear the following year at the Committee of Public Accounts to discuss the issues that were highlighted. Irrespective of who is contributing to its proceedings, the committee is viewed as fair and balanced. It is always chaired by a member of the Opposition. It does not allow for substitutes and its membership is balanced between Government and Opposition, which adds to the impartiality, independence and fairness with which the committee scrutinises not just the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, but also the relevant Accounting Officers who appear before it.
Bringing in Accounting Officers and scrutinising accounts on their own is not sufficient, however. It is not enough just to say that we interview and interrogate witnesses; we go much further than that by making specific recommendations. Many of the recommendations and suggestions are made informally when representatives of various Departments appear before us. Those recommendations would be made to Secretaries General or other staff. Informally, many such recommendations are implemented quickly.
More importantly, the Committee of Public Accounts produces formal reports based on its hearings and submits such reports directly to the Minister for Finance. The reports indicate a summary of what we have found at meetings of the committee, but we specifically bring forward findings and recommendations, which are brought directly to the attention of the Minister for Finance. While the Minister has a number of choices, he has to respond. The practical reality is that the vast majority of the committee's practical suggestions are accepted by the Minister for Finance and the relevant changes are made. I defy Members on either side of the House to say otherwise. If the chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, Deputy Noonan, was here tonight, I am sure he would agree.
One might ask where all of this is going but the practical reality is that, year after year, the issues coming before the committee are not the same because changes and improvements take place. If one believed everything in the motion, one would not expect to see such changes, yet we do see them.
I wish to refer specifically to one or two issues that were raised in the debate last night, including Thornton Hall. There was much debate on that matter because it is in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report, although it is not specifically mentioned in the motion. That issue will come before the Committee of Public Accounts in the next three or four weeks. It may be premature to comment on it here but since there has been so much comment already, it would be remiss of me to let the occasion pass without acknowledging that €30 million was spent. In his report, the Comptroller and Auditor General said that in his opinion it might have been possible — he did not say it was possible — to achieve better value for money if the purchase of the Thornton Hall site had been done in a different manner. The manner he suggested was if one went out blindly without notifying anybody of what one was doing and one bought the site. Those on the Opposition side were hopping up and down saying that is what the Minister should have done. The question is, however, if it had been their call, would they have bought the site on the blind? Would they have failed to tell the public and kept it a secret? Is that what they would have done?
The challenge the Minister threw out is a very viable one. In recent years, we have all seen auctioneers and valuers put certain values on properties, particularly when they go to auction. Invariably, however, we read reports afterwards which show their values were completely wrong. In this case, the Comptroller and Auditor General said that, in his opinion, it might have been possible to buy the site for a cheaper price. The Minister put an interesting challenge last night and I have yet to hear anybody accept it. He asked whether a similar, suitable site in as close proximity to the city centre could have been found more cheaply. I have not seen anybody yet stand up and say "Yes, it could". That challenge still stands.
The question is historic in that we have purchased the site. However, is anybody realistically saying that if the Thornton Hall site went on the market today, it would achieve a lower figure than we spent on it? I do not believe so. It is premature to comment on some of those issues because they will come before the Committee of Public Accounts in due course. Those who jump on the bandwagon and take one or two lines from the Comptroller and Auditor General's report without an in-depth analysis or putting it into context, are not dealing with the issue fairly or properly. The questions that both the Minister and I have put deserve a response.
The motion condemns the Government for not taking action to ensure better value for money since the 2004 report was published. That is not right, however, because we have seen changes on issues that have come before the Committee of Public Accounts. Members should think back to a couple of years ago. The single biggest issue in my short time as a member of the Committee of Public Accounts was expenditure on roads, which were always over budget and behind schedule. Now the issue of over expenditure and late completion of road projects never appears in the Comptroller and Auditor General's reports nor does it appear in this report. We need to put the report in context. We are making changes and they are delivering results. Recently when opening the Fermoy bypass the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, explained that an increasing trend in the delivery of major infrastructure projects was that they were coming in ahead of time and within budget. Specifically, last night he mentioned some of the projects that came in on time and ahead of budget: the Cavan bypass, the Enniscorthy-Clonroche realignment, Ashbourne, the M50 bypass, the Ballyshannon-Bundoran bypass and the Edgeworthstown relief road. Those who watched the Ryder Cup would acknowledge the improvements to the Naas Road from Rathcoole to Naas. All of these projects have come in on time or ahead of time and probably most came in under budget. A few years ago Members would have been objecting and complaining about issues raised in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. It is specifically that type of tone in the Opposition motion to which I object. I do not trivialise the matters raised by the Comptroller and Auditor General, they are very real and have to be dealt with. The impression being put forward is that the matters being raised by him are not being dealt with and that it is more of the same year on year. Nothing could be further from the truth. My colleagues on the Opposition, particularly those who are members of the Committee of Public Accounts or have served on that committee, should recognise that. They should stand up here and say they are not recurring problems. We can go through a whole range of them but the issues raised by the Committee of Public Accounts this year are not necessarily the same as those of last year. Changes have been made and are being made. By the very nature of public expenditure, when one is spending €45 billion or €50 billion there will always be areas where improvements can be made. We should acknowledge the vast areas where money has been spent well and specifically target the problem areas. To try to put one brush stroke through it and say there are the same problems year in year out and that it is a complete waste of money is not addressing the issue.
I congratulate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle on this important day for him. He has been not only a great servant of the Dáil but a great friend to those of us who are relatively new. He was one of the first people to greet me when I came to the Dáil so I wish to acknowledge that and say congratulations and well done.
I said today in another debate that it seemed to have been a quiet day in the Dáil, a slow news day I suppose. I was able to speak about many local issues in my constituency. I spoke about Tallaght and all the other areas in my constituency about which Deputies Catherine Murphy and James Breen know. I made the point that the Visitors Gallery was empty and there were not many people around. I am pleased to see renewed interest in Dáil business this evening and that the Visitors Gallery is almost full of young people.
That is good because it is important that people take the opportunity to hear what is going on in the Dáil. It is a pity that, because of the nature of the business of Dáil Deputies, there are not a great number of us present but people are working in their offices. It is good that young people in particular see the operation of the Dáil and the great work that is done.
I am sensitive to the fact I am surrounded by people who are experts so far as this business is concerned. I acknowledge, as is traditional on these occasions, the work of Deputies Burton and Bruton. That I am supporting the Government amendment does not mean I do not appreciate their efforts. Deputy Curran set out the stall very well and has made a fine contribution, as I would expect from a colleague who is a member of the Committee of Public Accounts. I will be followed by the chairman of the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service. They are the experts. As my colleagues opposite know there is not much I could say about Tallaght, Firhouse, Templeogue, Greenhills and Brittas on this motion but it is important business and it is important to deal with these issues and show the public there is confidence in the system.
I listened carefully to my colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, last night and to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, as they set out the Government's position and defended it as they saw it. It is important for them to do that. We are all entitled to our politics and to make our political points but at the same time it is important that the public maintain confidence in the system. Since Deputy Cowen became Minister for Finance he has grasped the problems presented to him. He sees the need to give good value for money so far as projects are concerned. It is important to stress to him on a regular basis the need for transparency in contracts. There is no question but that we should continue to do that. The work of the central expenditure evaluation unit should be applauded. I ask the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy de Valera, to convey to the Minister that there is much support in the House, on all sides, for this unit. The Minister made the point that it has a key role in promoting best practice in regard to appraisal and evaluation generally and in ensuring compliance by Departments and agencies with the capital appraisal guidelines and other requirements under the enhanced value for money framework which the Minister has put in place. It is important to note that the unit will review the annual reports from the Departments to the Department of Finance in regard to compliance with capital appraisal and value for money requirements. The objective is that deficiencies in Departments and agencies with regard to project management and value for money are identified and generally to facilitate more systematic engagement between the Departments and agencies to take any necessary corrective action.
As colleagues are aware, I do not get out of Tallaght that much but I often travel into town on the nice new Luas. I also use the roads and every now and again I travel down the country. It is important to recognise the progress made under the remit of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, in road development. Deputy Curran said there have been many improvements in the manner in which contracts are delivered and it is important to acknowledge that. As I travel around the country, though not as much as other Members, I am aware of the improvements and, clearly, value for money projects are being delivered. That is something we should applaud. I am glad to have had the opportunity to contribute to the debate and I am happy to concede to my colleague, Deputy Fleming.
I thank Deputy O'Connor from Tallaght for his introduction. I wish to make a number of observations on the motion tabled by Fine Gael and the Labour Party and the amendment tabled by the Government. The motion shows a clear focus of difference between Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats in Government versus the proposals of Fine Gael and the Labour Party, which will attempt to be in Government after the next general election. It is a view I have been hearing and believing during the past year or so and it is becoming more evident by the particular wording of the motion which reads:
That Dáil Éireann:
notes with serious concern the Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General for 2005 provides continuing evidence of shocking waste and overspending on a range of public projects...
If we analyse that part of the motion and no more we will see the difference between the parties on the Government side and the Opposition. The Opposition is saying the spending on a large amount of public projects in recent years has been a shocking waste. I fundamentally disagree. Most of the major projects are not only essential but in most cases are long overdue. The construction industry, which when we came to Government employed approximately 70,000 to 80,000 people, now employs up to 250,000 and has been a powerhouse generating economic activity through its involvement in the construction of significant public projects.
The Fine Gael Party appears to have a deep-seated hostility towards the construction industry and people working in it. We saw this when Fine Gael was in Government and cut back on major projects. It is interesting that when driving to work this morning I heard a review of a book being launched today. The book, On a Wing and a Prayer, is about Knock Airport and the late Monsignor Horan. It describes how he got on with the job with the support of the then Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, but as soon as Fine Gael and the Labour Party got into government, they blocked and stopped the project. The late Jim Mitchell, at the time, used to refer to the "foggy, boggy mountain", but in latter years he said that if ever he was in charge of a Department and needed someone to sort it out, he would choose Monsignor Horan. After many years of opposing what Monsignor Horan was doing, Jim Mitchell found and publicly admitted that the man had a vision way beyond what Fine Gael was capable of. Ultimately, Jim Mitchell saw the worth of Monsignor Horan. Knock Airport is an example of a constructed project that delivers improvements in terms of tourism and regional facilities. It is an example of what Fianna Fáil does in government and of what Fine Gael and Labour would prevent if they were back in government.
I have listened time and again to Fine Gael complaints about overspending on a range of public projects. We all know it is expensive to build major public projects. I concede that the original estimate for projects that take ten to 12 years from their original conception to their completion and opening is inevitably woefully below the final estimated cost. No system anywhere in the world could project costs ten or 12 years ahead, but that is the length of most of these construction projects. A good motorway project takes at least eight years in the design, planning, oral hearing and public consultation stages. The construction period will then be about two years.
I see the hand of Fine Gael behind this motion, particularly with regard to the claim of overspending.
I see the hand of the Fine Gael Party in it, especially with regard to the reference to overspending on public projects such as the port tunnel. The logic of that is that the Fine Gael Party would oppose the completion of the port tunnel because it costs a lot. The logic of the motion put forward by the Opposition is that it would oppose the widening of the Naas dual carriageway because of the significant cost involved. It is not just because it costs so much that Fine Gael is opposed to it, but because the party has a deep-seated hostility to the construction industry and the hundreds of thousands of decent people who earn their wages from it. They are the people I represent.
It is safe to say that construction is the biggest industry in my constituency. Fine Gael continually knocks all large projects. Its gripe is generally that the original estimate was woefully inadequate, but it ends up attacking the project saying it cost too much. The Fine Gael approach to projects with a significant cost is to abandon such projects and not allow them go ahead. I want to give a message to the hundreds of thousands of people in the construction industry. If they vote the Government out of a job next May or June, they will be voting themselves out of a job shortly thereafter because when Fine Gael and the Labour Party get into government, they will decide the cost of motorways to Cork, Limerick or Galway or the cost of bypasses of Ennis or wherever is too much and they will put a halt to those projects. That will lead to thousands of people losing their jobs in the construction industry.
I would be far happier if Fine Gael discussed the positive contribution being made. Perhaps then it could raise the issue of the need to get more accurate estimates before starting a job. It has gone about the issue the opposite way. It implies the original estimate is set in stone and if the final project costs more, it is a waste of Government money.
The motion condemns the fact that a Minister can intervene to fast-track projects. Where is this heading? The problem with every major capital project is that it takes so long to complete, yet here we have Fine Gael and the Labour Party criticising the concept of a Minister intervening to fast-track a project. In an underhand way they say the process should be more open, but they are opposed in principle to Ministers fast-tracking projects. Some officials unhappy with the fast-tracking of projects would be happy with the Fine Gael-Labour Party approach because it means they would never be disturbed by a Minister. However, I am happy to say that on this side of the House we have Ministers who will, when necessary, get the finger out and help to fast-track projects. This, however, has been portrayed as something negative by Fine Gael and the Labour Party.
We need to concentrate on better management of the public finances. The new National Development Finance Agency, NDFA, specifically deals with the financing and contractual arrangements for public private partnerships. This day last week four schools in my constituency, two in Portlaoise and two in Offaly, went to an EU tendering process through the NDFA which has the skills to deal with this process. We need to centralise business skills in the public service as we are doing with the NDFA and its influence should be extended beyond PPP projects into other major construction projects.
The Opposition spoke about reforming the Estimates process. The Minister announced this in his speech last year and progress is being made. It is a two-way street and the Opposition must also participate in the process. The Committee of Public Accounts produced a report last year by the leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, which showed a paltry amount of time was given to the Estimates by each of the Oireachtas committees. It is clear that despite the Minister making himself available for hours on end and the Opposition getting the opportunity to tease out the Estimates on a departmental basis, it failed to bother with it or even to turn up in most cases.
We need more detailed assessment of the Estimates process in the House, but pointing the finger at the Government in this regard ——
I think the Deputy is implying that at the committee of which he is Chairman, the Opposition does not turn up to deal with the Estimates. If he checks the record, that will not stand up to scrutiny. The other point he has been making during the course of this debate has little connection with reality.
I will clarify that. I take the Deputy's point, but if he had listened closely, I referred to the report produced by Deputy Rabbitte which specifically stated that the Oireachtas Committee on Finance and the Public Service spent more time dealing with the finance Estimates than any other committee in respect of departmental Estimates. I am talking about the other committees across the board. Our committee was the only one that made a genuine attempt to examine the Estimates. No other committee did the same.
The first thing the Opposition should do is talk to its spokesperson in terms of paying more attention to the Estimates process, rather than coming in with a motion that suggests that it is in some way the Government's fault that Opposition spokespersons across the board do not give the time they should to the Estimates process. That would be a major help.
I am pleased the Opposition is putting the focus back on economic issues. The approaching general election and the real debate will focus on those issues over the next eight or nine months and I am happy to debate them. I intend no disrespect to the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General but he is not infallible. Some members of the Committee of Public Accounts have by their actions shown that they believe he is infallible. They have an inferiority complex when it comes to dealing with the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. I am not referring to Deputy Burton——
Like everybody else, he is not infallible, and he accepts that. However, some people in this House quote his document as if he is infallible, without entering into rational debate and teasing out the details. I look forward to such a debate taking place at the Committee of Public Accounts meetings on Thursday mornings from now until the next general election.
I wish to share time with Deputies Ó Caoláin, McHugh, Catherine Murphy, James Breen, Finian McGrath and Connolly.
My party and I will support the motion on the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. It is predictable that the members of the Government parties have chosen to argue that Members have no right to raise this report and that the issues will be dealt with in the Committee of Public Accounts. As a member of that committee, with Deputies Fleming and Burton, I accept this argument to some extent.
The terms of reference of the Committee of Public Accounts specifically preclude the debating of policy issues. This House should have an open debate every year on the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General so that those issues can be discussed in a way they cannot be discussed in the Committee of Public Accounts.
This year's litany of over-expenditure is linked to flawed policy making. This is evident in the way the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, now Tánaiste, and his Department has handled the purchase of Thornton Hall. It is also evident with reference to the national coastline survey. The Department of Education and Science, as represented by the Minister for State, has allowed people to walk away with payments which are more than their entitlements. These are justifiable questions that must be asked in the public interest.
The new Tánaiste must answer questions. He talks about a smaller State and about the interests of the taxpayer but in office he has shown himself to be far too willing to spend taxpayers' money recklessly. The issue of Thornton Hall will be one of the main considerations of the work of the Committee of Public Accounts this year.
It is unfortunate that this debate in its political context must be made with the political Minister of each Department. The structure of the Committee of Public Accounts allows members of the committee to ask questions of the Accounting Officers, the Secretary General of each Department. This provides information on the efficiency of the administration of the Departments. However, Members of this House need to challenge Ministers on how public money is being expended. This year's report of the Comptroller and Auditor General represents a litany of such mistakes which is an unfortunate characteristic of the Government.
Deputy Fleming concluded his contribution by berating the Opposition for not contributing in a proper manner to the Estimates process. That is unfortunate because Deputy Fleming is a very valued member of the Committee of Public Accounts and is generally a very effective Chairman of the Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service. He must not have read the recommendations of the report of the Committee of Public Accounts which dealt with the way in which the Estimates are structured and the ineffective manner in which the Legislature examines the expenditure of public moneys on a year to year basis. The initial report produced by Deputy Rabbitte when he was a member of the Committee of Public Accounts referred to the Estimates procedure for the Department of Health and Children and the expenditure of €13 billion being dealt with in a session lasting 90 minutes or so. When we account for that type of expenditure to the people we represent, they will not take seriously the work of this Legislature or its committees. They will not regard it as an effective job in monitoring how public money is raised and expended.
The motion refers to recommendations made by the two parties supporting the motion and there is much that is worthy of consideration in the report they produced. The remedy of misspent public fund moneys is not the wherewithal of any one political party or any combination of political parties and that is certainly the case in the combination of political parties making up the Government.
I commend the limited opportunity offered to Members to discuss this report. I challenge the Government to get its act together and ensure that in the future this House has a full and open debate on the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Like all other Deputies, I welcome the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. These reports are very important because misuse of public moneys undermines public confidence in Government, in the public sector and in the tax system. However, for these reports to be of real value, those responsible for the financial misuse and irregularities highlighted need to be held accountable and the findings need to prompt changes in order to achieve best practice and value for money in public spending.
This latest report highlights a number of very serious cases of questionable financial management. I welcome in particular the light it sheds on the Thornton Hall fiasco. As my colleague, party spokesperson on justice, Deputy Ó Snodaigh, pointed out, the section of the report on the purchase of the site for the proposed super prison at Thornton Hall is a vindication of my party's position. The report is damning regarding the purchase of this site.
The report found that the price paid for the site at Thornton Hall is likely to have been at least twice the market price at the time for well positioned agricultural land with development potential in the target area. The Comptroller and Auditor General describes the State's negotiating position as weak. He concludes that there was no real competition to obtain the lowest possible price and that the procurement process "did not position the State to acquire the land at the lowest cost economically achievable." The report further states:
The committee did not record the basis on which scores were awarded to individual sites under the various criteria. The marks awarded by the site selection committee appear to be inconsistent.
The report also found that the manner in which the Office of Public Works contracted with CBRE for the provision of professional services for the site selection and procurement did not comply with the rules for procurement of professional services in a number of respects. Deputy Ó Snodaigh yesterday challenged the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in this House regarding the inconsistencies between the Minister's assertion that the purchase of the Thornton Hall prison site for €199,000 per acre was good value and that of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report which concludes very clearly that it was not.
The Minister has not satisfactorily accounted for this blatant wastage of public money. As I previously stated this evening, the Comptroller and Auditor General's report is only of value if those responsible, the Minister, Deputy McDowell, in this case, are made to account for the financial mismanagement in question.
The report also examined a number of issues related to the Department of Health and Children. The Comptroller and Auditor General found that the discretionary medical card scheme is not operated in a uniform way across the health service. The Comptroller and Auditor General raised concerns that payments continue to be made to doctors on the basis of the 75,000 estimate, which now appears to be too high. An examination of the nursing home subvention scheme found huge discrepancies in how subventions are given in different HSE regions. Once again these issues highlight inequities at the heart of the health system.
I urge the Comptroller and Auditor General to undertake a more comprehensive review of public private partnerships in all Departments. In 2004, the Comptroller and Auditor General published a value for money report into the use of public private partnerships for the construction of a number of schools, and the maintenance and running of the school buildings over a 25-year contract period. That report raised concerns regarding the ultimate cost of those PPPs to the State and suggested the costs and benefits of adopting the PPP approach should be assessed relative to the performance of a comparable group of schools procured conventionally. There is a need now before the Government takes us any further down the PPP road to carry out a thorough evaluation of the true cost to the State and, therefore, the taxpayer of the range of PPPs embarked upon to date. From the experience in other states there is every reason to suspect that PPPs will prove to have been the biggest misuse and waste of public money ever. I look forward to the Comptroller and Auditor General undertaking that further review.
The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General is a guaranteed source of annual dispute and disagreement between Government and Opposition. An objective analysis of the report would show that the extreme and polarised positions adopted by both Government and Opposition in pursuance of, on the one hand, defence and, on the other hand, criticism are unwarranted. The Minister for Finance was anxious to point out that in 2005, the year to which this report relates, gross expenditure by central Government on public services amounted to approximately €45 billion. Although he did not say it, I presume the reason he offered this information was to stress that when dealing in such a large sum, waste will occur. While I accept that not every system and process can be perfect, I do not accept that there is an acceptable level of waste. The Government and Departments should at all times strive to eliminate waste. There should be an obligation on the relevant Minister to address every instance of waste and show that measures have been put in place to prevent a recurrence.
The Opposition does not do itself justice in this process either. Attempts are continually made to portray the annual report of the Comptroller and Auditor General as some sort of shocking report carried out to expose some new disgraceful wastage. It is nothing of the sort. The Comptroller and Auditor General has a statutory requirement to report annually in his audit of departmental appropriation accounts. One example from this report illustrates the problem we have with big bureaucratic structures within which one person does not know what is the other's role and may even be unsure of his or her own role. The HSE is one such example. The illustration in the report shows that the HSE does not know the number of persons who hold discretionary medical cards, even though it pays GPs supposedly based on the number of medical cardholders in the individual practices. Doctors are paid on the basis of 75,000 cards, while HSE estimates put the number holding cards at 45,000 a difference of 30,000. While the bureaucratic HSE cannot establish the true number, it continues to pay for the 30,000 it believes do not exist.
This is a unique time in Irish society; it is a time of plenty, although it may not be very well spread around. While it might be obvious it is worth reminding ourselves that the national coffers are not in the ownership of any Government. The Government is merely their custodian, which is why those funds should not be squandered.
The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General highlights the area of integrated ticketing among others. The Dublin Transport Initiative commenced its work in the early 1990s. European funds were sought because traffic congestion in Dublin was costing the State a fortune. The DTI recommended bus lanes, Luas lines, increased rail services, etc. It also recommended integrated ticketing. While there may be an excuse for the time taken to provide bus lanes or lay the Luas lines, there is no excuse for the time lag in introducing integrated ticketing. It would have been possible to drain the Shannon in the time it has taken to introduce the system. The first procrastination took place in the late 1990s and a report was prepared for the then Minister for Public Enterprise, now Senator O'Rourke, in 1999. We have had a succession of reports but still no integrated ticketing. In 2006 the simple card that would allow a passenger to move between the various modes of public transport in the same way as in any other capital city is still awaited. There is no justification for a continued delay.
The motion refers to a public buying office. There are examples of such an office in other countries. For example the British local authorities are served by a new procurement system, which saved £3 billion on a £27 billion spend, which shows how such a system can work. In a recent publication by TASC, we were told that the public bodies operating at national, regional and local level are more numerous than ever before, so much so that the title of the publication is Outsourcing Government. It is only when we face a downturn that these will be rationalised and we will discover the waste of taxpayers' money.
Every year the annual report of the Comptroller and Auditor General has highlighted the continued waste of taxpayers' money due to the implementation of projects, some of which are merely ego-driven whims of Ministers. Far too often these projects have resulted in seemingly never-ending overspends in taxpayers' money. However, action to reform the measures that allow such waste have either not been taken or on occasions have moved along at a snail's pace. It is not surprising that the public is fast losing whatever faith it has left in the Government.
At a time when our economy is idealised as a role model for many countries and when tax collection continues to surpass projected forecasts it is shameful that mismanagement and inefficiency result in the continued waste of public money. Instead of Ministers speaking in the Dáil to account for wasting taxpayers' money or explaining their actions in their Departments or the actions of semi-State bodies within their remit, we find Ministers hiding behind the Ceann Comhairle's office, refusing to answer reasonable questions, totally flying in the face of the Government's so-called ideal of openness and transparency.
It is incumbent on the Government to install a system whereby the input or intervention of any Minister in any project is clear at all times. Ministers should be answerable to the Dáil on any question regarding their intervention. Equally, it is our duty to change the process whereby a preliminary report on a project bears little relation to the final project, following a bartering process by individuals each promoting their own agenda. Definitive guidelines as to what any capital project entails and realistic pricing policies are urgently required. Eddie Hobbs, rather than any Minister, would appear to have more influence on the pricing policies for Government projects. Having been ridiculed over the difference in costs of projects from preliminary report stage to the real cost on completion, the Government has now gone to the other extreme. The trend has now developed whereby initial estimates are overstated and timeframes are exaggerated so that on completion, a project can be announced as being below budget and ahead of time. The appointment of an estimates commissioner is immediately required to put an end to this charade.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to this very important motion regarding the waste and overspending of taxpayers' money. I will focus on two major projects on the north side of Dublin. The site of the proposed prison at Thornton Hall cost €30 million for a farm that is worth €15 million. Where is the Tánaiste going in this regard? Where is the bright boy in the class, when he squanders €15 million? We can all imagine what we could do with €15 million to address the shortage of beds in wards, speech therapy services, and home help and care services for the elderly.
On 26 January 2005 the Department of Finance sanctioned funds to purchase Thornton Hall, stating that the sanction was conveyed on the condition that all procurement guidelines had been strictly followed. As the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General clearly highlights that all procurement guidelines were not strictly followed, the logical deduction is that Thornton Hall was bought without financial sanction. The Tánaiste should wake up and smell the coffee. He is out of touch and is wasting public funds.
Another project in my constituency is the Dublin Port tunnel, which was supposed to cost €300 million and up to now has cost approximately €900 million, three times the price. It is finally estimated to cost €1.2 billion when completed. Tell that to the 261 families whose homes have been damaged, the 117 in Marino who are awaiting compensation and the taxpayers who want value for money and proper accountability. This motion is about overspending, incompetence, mismanagement and the failure to ensure that taxpayers' money is spent wisely, and I urge all Deputies to support it.
The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General provides a catalogue of the worst examples of financial mismanagement and the squandering of taxpayers' money. Given that there were similar reports in 2003 and 2004, it is not that we had a bad year in 2005 and I do not doubt the same story will be told in respect of 2006. If similar situations arose in the private sector, we would not be returning the following year to find out whether anything had changed. What has happened to the people who squandered millions of euro? Did they get a pat on the back or a bonus?
Does anybody believe the Comptroller and Auditor General has got to the bottom of every incident of wasted public money? I doubt it. We are only at the tip of the iceberg on these matters. Some public servants merely stand back and observe the daily waste of money because there is no incentive for them to do anything about it. However, if we were to offer them a percentage of the potential savings, they would step up to the mark. At present, they believe they would only be banging their heads against a wall were they to point out the ways in which money could be saved. Despite the waste that occurred in the health sector, large bonuses continue to be paid. We should take account of the situation obtaining in the private sector.
I wish to discuss the report's findings on nursing home subvention payments. Currently, 104 cases are before the High Court in respect of these payments. People feel they were forced to apply for subventions because of the shortage of public beds. Each HSE area uses a different method to meet the demand for nursing home subventions. I raised this matter on a number of occasions and have sought the assistance of the Labour Party spokespersons for health and older persons, Deputies McManus and Ryan, respectively, in doing so.
I am disappointed that the report did not highlight the problems which have arisen with regard to assessment of the principal residence. The subvention guidelines state that a claimant's home can be assessed if the value of the house is more than €500,000 in Dublin or €300,000 elsewhere. However, account should be taken of the occupant of the house when an application is made for subvention. That discrepancy will have to be addressed through guidelines. Under the current regime, the house will not be assessed if it is occupied by the claimant's spouse, a child under 21 years of age, a person in full-time education or someone in receipt of disability benefit, blind person's pension, invalidity pension or old age non-contributory pension. A person unfortunate enough to be in receipt of long-term unemployment assistance or a carer's allowance or who earns a small income faces the possibility that the house will be sold over his or her head. We have argued for change on this issue and will continue to do so.
The assessment of dependency does not reflect the charges imposed by nursing home owners. While the assessment provides for three different rates, owners pay little heed to them. There is little logic to the matter. If the assessment is to be made on a financial basis, it should be able to take account of the problems encountered by the people who apply for subvention. I hope we get another opportunity to discuss this serious issue.
I will begin by addressing the same issue as my colleague, Deputy Wall. The criticisms made in this report with regard to nursing home subventions require urgent action. A family may qualify for sufficient subvention to fill the gap between a pension and the cost of a nursing home in one HSE area, while failing to do so in another area. In my area of the mid-west, there is a shortage of public beds and families are put to the pin of their collars to meet the gap. Elderly people are put under all sorts of pressure and, in many cases, the money has gradually dwindled even after the family home has been sold. According to the report, the system is totally inequitable. That urgently needs to be corrected because I would not be surprised if a case was taken to the Equality Authority on grounds of age discrimination.
While the Comptroller and Auditor General has to pass judgment on mistakes made in the past, it is up to the Government to learn from them. For that reason, Fine Gael and the Labour Party have proposed a clear line of responsibility with regard to the spending of taxpayers' money so that we can, for example, spend it on building schools and providing for children in the education system. I raise that example because, in terms of the percentage of GDP spent on education, we are currently 29th out of 30 OECD countries.
Other speakers referred to the €29.9 million spent on Thornton Hall for a prison site which, it appears, could have been purchased for much less if the Government had acted differently when it acquired the land. We must learn from that and ensure we do not waste money in that way.
Under the system of funding from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, there is not enough money to appoint the number of probation officers and so forth required to implement the Children Act and to make families responsible for young offenders. There is not enough money for youth encounter programmes, which are also under the auspices of that Department. These programmes offer an opportunity to address young offenders at an early stage and put them on the correct path. Those areas are starved of funding yet we waste €29.9 million on a site for a prison that could have been bought more cheaply.
Lessons must be learned across the Departments about acquiring land for public purposes. In the education sector, for example, land is bought for building schools long after the need for it has been identified. That is the wrong way to approach it. We must have new systems whereby the Department of Education and Science acquires land for schools when it knows there will be a growth in population. It must work with local authorities in this regard and ensure it acquires the land well in advance of when the need arises. Rather than simply identifying a site, it should acquire the land.
I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, is present, given that he is responsible for the Office of Public Works. The Department of Education and Science is seeking a site in my constituency for a gaelscoil. Everybody knows how urgently the Department needs the site and how long the school has been waiting for it so the Department will pay a great deal more for it than if it had bought a site five or six years ago. It was known at that stage that a site would be needed. A similar situation occurred in Laytown. Local representatives there have told me the Department could have got a site more cheaply if it had moved earlier. Now, however, all the landowners know the Department urgently needs a site for a school so the prices have increased.
Lessons must be learned from the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. I commend the proposals from the Labour Party and Fine Gael regarding what they will do in government about public spending.
It is clear the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has serious issues to address and answers to give regarding property matters. Before I discuss Thornton Hall, it is clear he will have issues to address tomorrow morning with regard to the house purchased by the Taoiseach, his knowledge of the background to that and the fact that the vendor of that house was apparently one of the attendees at the dinner in Manchester.
There are issues to be addressed by the Tánaiste regarding the Taoiseach's house. He must also address the issue of Thornton Hall. Serious questions on this matter have not been answered. It is clear that the value of agricultural land in that area was approximately €25,000 per acre. I have a list of eight properties in the area which were sold for an average price of €25,000 per acre. A 238 acre site nearby, at Grange Farm, Kilbride, was sold by public auction, the best indicator of market value, for €26,000 per acre in the months following the purchase of Thornton Hall. How can anybody justify the payment of €200,000 per acre for a farm of 150 acres? I have long claimed that this was the dearest farm in Europe.
The only part of value in the farm was an extra five acres which was included in the original verbal arrangement — the original verbal arrangement was 155 acres for €29.9 million. Somehow the only five acres that had zoning was excluded in the deal that was finally done. That was the only part of value but no explanation has ever been given for the change. This deal was crazy from every point of view. It was an outrageous blunder on the part of the Minister.
The circumstances of the deal and the manner in which it was arrived at have never been properly explained. How did the Minister become aware of this farm? Why was it not made available in response to the original advertisements? Why did it not comply with the criteria laid down by the public servants who were dealing with the matter? Why was there a litany of errors, as described by the Comptroller and Auditor General, in the purchase of the farm? Why did the Prison Service end up negotiating with a single party with no effective degree of competition, as pointed out by the Comptroller and Auditor General?
Why were no comprehensive site surveys carried out on the farm before the purchase was completed? The deal was completed in seven days. Why was there no comprehensive costing of the work that would be necessary after acquisition to enable the site to be used for a prison? This was, in poker terms, a bum deal. The Minister has not explained why he was party to such a deal. He has not explained how it began, how it was conducted or how it concluded.
Regardless of how long this Government lasts, and it looks as if it will not be long, this is an issue that will not go away. This must be explained, particularly by the Progressive Democrats. The Progressive Democrats have suggested that they have an interest in the taxpayer and in value for money. How could anybody suggest that buying a farm worth €25,000 per acre by paying €200,000 per acre from taxpayers' money gives the slightest consideration to the taxpayer? This will be a millstone around the necks of the Progressive Democrats. It will be remembered in the election, regardless of whether it is held next week, next month or next year.
We are lucky to have Mr. John Purcell as Comptroller and Auditor General. I had the pleasure of being a member of the Committee of Public Accounts for a number of years. Regardless of who is in government, it is vital that this watchdog organ of the State is given all the power necessary to carry out its balanced and forensic investigations. Any Government worth its salt should take note of this report.
It is true that every year the same sins seem to be committed. I sincerely hope the new Fine Gael-Labour Party Government will stop that. Contrary to what Deputy Fleming said, Fine Gael and the Labour Party are far from wanting to stop progress in the economy. However, we want to ensure that if a road is built from A to B and it is done through good management and in the best and most efficient manner, there will be money to build one from C to D. That is the issue.
Several major roads are being built. We were told in 2000 that the Galway-Dublin road would be ready this year but it will not be ready for another four years. What about the two feeder roads, the N17 and the N18? Not only will they not be completed until seven or eight years later but they will cost millions more euro than if they had been built on schedule. The electorate will decide this issue at the next general election. People will agree they have never had it so good but they will ask if they got added value for the amount of money in the economy and what could have been done with it.
Thornton Hall has been mentioned by many Members. In farming terms this could be compared to a man who wants to buy a €1,000 cow. He will surely get a €1,000 cow from the first man who has one to sell. However, that might not mean the cow is worth €1,000. What obviously happened in the Department was that somebody got it into his or her head that €30 million should be paid for a site for a prison. The deal was done with the first person who could be found who would sell land for that value. Many people would sell their land for €30 million. That is the bottom line. CBRE, the property consultants, said its fee would be €184,000 but when the deal was done, it was €256,500 plus €53,000 VAT.
In regard to medical cards, I refer to something that happened a couple of years ago as well. Several doctors got paid for medical card recipients who had been dead for years. Some of the former health boards did not check that and it has happened again three or four years later.
I would like to go into many aspects of this report. The buck must stop with somebody. I sincerely hope a real difference will be made by the Fine Gael-Labour Government, which will get its opportunity next May and every member of the electorate will thank us.
In the course of this debate the Opposition spokespersons have repeatedly singled out a small number of individual cases of concern in regard to alleged waste of public expenditure. They have sought to use these particular cases and the Comptroller and Auditor General's report to exaggerate the extent of waste of public expenditure, to suggest indifference on the part of the Government to the issue of wasteful expenditure and to undermine the Government's achievements in regard to public expenditure. I want to completely refute any claims that the Government does not take the issue of waste and the achievement of value for money for the taxpayer seriously.
As stated by the Minister for Finance in his contribution, the Government welcomes the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on the 2005 Appropriation Accounts as a valuable contribution to the ongoing process of minimising waste and ensuring better value for money for taxpayers. Issues in the report will be formally addressed in detail when, in accordance with normal procedures, the Committee of Public Accounts considers the report and the Minister for Finance responds by way of formal minute to the issues raised.
As regards the main cases cited by the Opposition Deputies, the issue of Thornton Hall is a matter for the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The Comptroller and Auditor General states in regard to the site that "a well-managed, third party approach might have allowed the Prison Service to procure suitable land at a much lower price than was paid for the land at Thornton". It is a pity Deputy Connaughton cannot wait to hear this because it is important in terms of clarifying the fairy tale notion he had about how this site was bought.
In this context, as indicated by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and his Department, a "third party approach" means that a site would be acquired in secret through a third party. No one would be told that the State was involved or that land was being sought for the most significant penal development in the history of the State. There would have been no public advertisement.
The Accounting Officer of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has already gone on record stating that in the light of the nature of this particular project and to ensure proper accountability, a deliberate and principled decision was taken not to use a third party approach. There are strategic, moral and practical reasons for that decision. The best practice for public procurement requires an open and transparent process that provides all suitable vendors with the opportunity to participate. Without an advertisement inviting parties to express an interest in making land available for a prison site, it would not have been possible to confirm that all suitable available sites had been considered nor would it have been possible to show that the final selection was on the basis of objective criteria rather than the subject of influence or corruption. The OPW fully accepted the reasonableness of the Department's decision to disclose its interest and the proposed end use.
The Accounting Officer also points out that initial explorations using a third party approach did not identify a wide range of potentially suitable sites. The most suitable sites would not have come to notice without a public advertisement. In any event, because of the size of the project and the need to carry out surveys, it is doubtful that a sale could have been closed without the vendor becoming aware that the State was the purchaser.
To deliberately mislead the vendor as to the identity of the purchaser and the intended purpose of the site would be in breach of the State's duty to act in good faith. This would be particularly so where local opposition might be aggravated and the vendor forced to leave the area. Land in the greater Dublin area zoned for agricultural use has been selling for prices up to €800,000 an acre. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is not aware of any suitable site closer to Dublin being sold for less than the €200,000 an acre paid for Thornton.
I emphatically reject the Opposition motion which is without any real substance and I strongly commend the Government's amendment to it.
I wish to share time with Deputy Burton.
I welcome this important debate. The work of the Comptroller and Auditor General is vital for ensuring good governance as it provides a reality check, particularly for a Government whose hallmark is profligacy and waste. It also shows the gulf that can open between ministerial rhetoric and ministerial practice and nowhere is that gulf more evident than in the area of health.
When the Minister, Deputy Harney, took office she insisted inexplicably on rushing legislation through the House to establish the Health Service Executive by 1 January 2005. There was no proper planning, preparation or even a chief executive officer in place. However, the Minister blithely promised this new structure would provide "better outcomes for patients and better value for taxpayers' money". We have seen neither. We were promised:
The lines of responsibility and accountability are clear in this legislation, the clearest they will ever have been in health administration in this country. That will make a real difference to the quality of health services provided for our people.
Two years on, the Minister for Health and Children cannot even tell us how many people are employed in the health service. What we have is bad value for money and almost zero accountability. The Minister presided over a messy, inarticulate transformation of our most important public service. Any regional local accountability which existed prior to the establishment of the HSE has disappeared. Media access is limited and local decision making has been greatly eroded. Parliamentary questions are now diverted from the Minister to the Health Service Executive. An answer eventually makes its way back to a Deputy's office in the form of a private letter and there is no public record ensuring a further lack of accountability. I have waited for as long as four months for a response to a question and other Deputies have waited even longer.
Were it not for the annual Comptroller and Auditor General's reports, the full extent of the waste and disregard for providing taxpayers with value for money may never be exposed. Mr. Purcell said he feels his annual report needs to be brought to public attention "in the interests of transparency and accountability". His oversight role is particularly important in a health service which is so deficient in these safeguards.
The saga of the HSE computer system, PPARS, which does not work despite having more than €150 million spent on it is just the latest but also perhaps the most stark example of the extraordinarily cavalier approach of this Government to taxpayers' money. In the past week we have discovered that the Minister and the Health Service Executive are commissioning yet another review of PPARS. The previous review was carried out when Professor Drumm called a halt to its development in November 2005. We have now been told that a further review is required which will conveniently extend beyond the date of the next general election. I smell a rat. We do not know who will carry out this review and how much it will cost but we know that in terms of the timeframe, it will let this Government off the hook. I call on the Minister for Health and Children to prove me wrong by ensuring this review is carried out within three instead of nine months, although frankly at the rate skeletons are tumbling out of the cupboard, we do not have a guarantee the Government will last three months.
In regard to the nursing home repayments, had the previous Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, been doing his job properly and reading the brief, this problem would have been identified much earlier and taxpayers would not now be faced with such a massive repayments bill.
In terms of medical cards for people aged over 70, if there had been any kind of cost benefit analysis, any kind of constructive negotiations with the doctors or an actual study of the number of recipients, perhaps the cost would not have jumped from an estimated €19 million to an estimated additional annual cost of €51 million.
This year, the Comptroller and Auditor General's report highlights further issues surrounding the way public funds are spent in health. There is an overspend with regard to discretionary medical cards. These are medical cards that are given to individuals that are over the income guidelines for a medical card but who, by reason of illness, may face large medical bills. The main problem with the discretionary medical card is that they are not being administered in a uniform way across the country, thereby creating further geographical inequalities.
The definition of a discretionary medical card has never been agreed. A lack of clarity around these cards means that the total figures from the HSE and the Department of Health and Children vary significantly, resulting in doctors being paid in excess of what they are due. This has been highlighted in the current report, which states:
The remuneration of doctors for medical cards assumes the existence of 75,000 discretionary cards. The figures provided by the HSE regions suggest the real figure may be far lower, perhaps as low as 45,600. The figure recorded on the Primary Care Reimbursement Service (PCRS) database is lower still at 36,000. The Accounting Officer has indicated that the ongoing validation exercise in all HSE regions is likely to reveal that the figure is between 65,000 and 68,000.
Despite the expenditure of €10.046 million in 2005 in respect of 75,000 cards, it now emerges that the number of actual cards is much lower. It is worth remembering that this Government promised 200,000 medical cards but did not deliver them. Then there was a new promise of 200,000 GP-only cards and less that 30,000 have materialised. I suppose this is one way that the Government makes up its losses. It wastes money in one area and saves money by reneging on promises made to low income families who cannot afford to go to their family doctor.
The record on the publication of reports by the Minister for Health and Children is also a matter of concern. For example, the post mortem inquiry into the removal and retention of organs from children who died began in 2000 and continued until December 2005. The cost was originally estimated to be in the order of €1.9 million. The final cost of the inquiry and report came to almost €14 million. That is approximately seven times over budget and ultimately the report did not satisfy those who were most directly concerned.
I have asked the Minister for Health and Children many times about the following issue but the replies have not been satisfactory. A report into alleged abuse at the Brothers of Charity home in Kilcornan, County Galway, that first commenced in 1999 remains unpublished. We are now in the extraordinary position that seven years later we are waiting for a review of the original inquiry. The individuals concerned are people with intellectual disability — the most vulnerable in society who are entitled to see justice but have been blocked from getting it. Likewise, the Leas Cross report has not been published even though we have made it very clear to the Minister that she has the power to do so.
Ministers are custodians of taxpayers' money. When reports are commissioned, it should not be unusual that they are produced on time and on budget. This Government has failed to meet this test among others, as has been exposed by the Comptroller and Auditor General. I do not believe the Government is capable of doing any better. It is not capable of reforming itself. What is required is a fresh start and that can only come by way of a general election.
I apologise for leaving earlier but our colleague, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, was celebrating 45 years in the Dáil with colleagues from the Labour Party. He and his father have 66 years of unbroken service to this House between them, which is a record. I apologise to the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, for missing his reply to the debate as a result.
The heart of the Comptroller and Auditor General's reports for each of the last four years during the life of this Government is a catalogue of waste, failure and things gone wrong. This will be the last report before the next general election. That is not to say that things do not go wrong in management structures or that people do not make plans that turn out to be more expensive or conditions change that make the item either more necessary or less relevant, but the difficulty here it is that when the Comptroller and Auditor General reports, there is nobody at Government level who is responsible. It becomes the responsibility of civil servants, although in a management context they are really the line managers carrying out the orders of the Government of the day. Unlike in many other jurisdictions, nobody in the Government ever seems to take responsibility — except for successes. No one ever takes responsibility for failure, for things that do not happen or for things that run over budget.
I listened to the Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, speak last night on integrated ticketing. The poor Minister has been ten years or more in a State car and I am not sure he understands what public transport is like. He does not appear to appreciate that on the north-west side of Dublin there is no Luas. He was boasting about ticket integration between the Luas and some train users which was introduced by Connex but he did not seem to appreciate — perhaps because he is unfamiliar with the geography of the north-west side of Dublin — that we only have a train and some buses. The train is so overcrowded it is popularly known locally as "The Calcutta Express". We have a bus lane which, with other bus lanes in Dublin city, cost €100 million but it is only a cause of aggravation to motorists because, by and large, there are no buses in the bus lanes in the greater Dublin area.
Reference was also made to Thornton Hall. This project is driven by a narrow Progressive Democrats ideology which wants a super-prison on the outskirts of Dublin so that down the road, in the unlikely event that the Progressive Democrats Party is able to cling to power even after this week's events, it can be privatised. It really is difficult to read year after year this catalogue of waste and find that no one other than civil servants are ever held responsible. The only head that rolled in regard to the fiascoes in the Department of Health and Children was not that of the then Minister, the commissioner of nearly 200 consultancy reports, but the Secretary General of the Department, who was moved.
If there is to be a change — we are offering a change to the people at the next election — it will include a proper structure of accountability on the spending of the people's own tax money so that as far as possible there is value for money, accountability and, if and when things go wrong, the buck will stop at some point. In Government, the buck should stop with the Minister or the Taoiseach of the day as he or she is the person who is responsible.
The other important element in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report is the chapter on the Revenue Commissioners. Like the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Revenue Commissioners have reformed over the past 15 years. They are unrecognisable as the Revenue Commissioners of 1990 when it was commonly claimed that there was no pot of gold in terms of tax avoidance and evasion. Time and again, we have proven that the Minister for Finance has been the beneficiary. This report shows that the single premium insurance inquiries have yielded €398 million to date and will conservatively yield another €100 million. When I raised this matter with the Minister two years ago, he said "oh fiddle dee dee, there is no money". How time has proven him wrong.
The construction industry boom has been accompanied by a level of tax evasion and avoidance in that industry while an ordinary taxpayer, such as a young person who is probably single, earning €32,000 at work in the greater Dublin area or counties Kildare or Meath who gets a bit of overtime pay or a bonus payment, must pay tax at 42%.
This year, the Comptroller and Auditor General stated that the number of tax compliance audits of businesses has fallen from 16,000 to 14,000. It is time for people to look for a change of Government and to change the faces here so that people are given value for their hard-earned money. They must ensure that the Government takes responsibility.