Wednesday, 21 March 2007
It is becoming increasingly obvious that this Government is on its last legs. As the Taoiseach heads to his Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis at the weekend, I am sure he will be looking back on ten years of promises, and maybe he will make a few more. Given that we will not have the opportunity presented to us this morning again, perhaps he will reflect on a few of the promises he made before he makes any new ones.
That was a very timely intervention, a Cheann Comhairle. I have no intention of reading out the Government's programme for 2002 but I recall the former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, saying on 6 May 2002 that the Government would permanently end waiting lists in our hospitals within two years. One should remember that promise.
I remember the promise on prisons and crime to the effect that the Government would avoid overcrowding and reopening the revolving door. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is not even present.
On class sizes, it was promised that the average pupil-teacher ratio in classes for children under nine would be below 20:1 by 2007. This was the third promise. In respect of the transport chaos on the M50, the Taoiseach said he would develop the metro for Dublin, achieving a link to Dublin Airport by 2007. Let us not forget the memorable words of the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, that the €52 million investment by this Government on behalf of taxpayers is absolutely secure and that we would see those machines used.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern. Will the Taoiseach tell me, man to man, whether any of those five promises, on which he really would like to have delivered, keeps him awake at night? Will he answer this in the House before we hear the de Róiste judgment at the weekend?
On class sizes, we have employed 8,000 extra teachers in primary schools since 1997 and the pupil-teacher ratio is now down to 27:1 or 28:1. There has been an enormous improvement in respect of disadvantaged children and the class size in this respect is 13 in secondary school. This is as good as any international standard.
——worked quite well in the last election — they worked excellently. Fine Gael is afraid of them and wants to return to paper and pencils. Even though we are a country of technology, Fine Gael would rather go back to the old way — a haon, a dó, a trí and use the pencils. Ireland is the largest exporter of technology and everybody is using it with their bank cards, etc. Fine Gael wants us to use pens and peann luaidhes again. That is its policy and if we keep going in that direction we will all be unemployed again.
The Taoiseach said he ended the revolving door and sorted out all the business concerning crime and justice. Last year 470 prisoners were released early from Cork jail to make way for new inmates. Is this not an indication that the revolving door is still alive and well? There are 110,000 children in classes of 30 or more, despite the Taoiseach's assertion that the pupil-teacher ratio is now reduced to 28:1. It took some pressure from this side of the House to force a change within the Department of Education and Science to provide language support teachers in the numbers required.
The Taoiseach said the electronic voting machines worked "quite well". The population is waiting to dispatch this Government with their "peann luaidhes" when they get the opportunity. I remind the Taoiseach of Deputy Cullen's statement that the money is absolutely secure and that the machines will be used. I suppose the Taoiseach will get up at the weekend and say they will be used some other time.
They will not be used in the lifetime of the next Government.
The €750 million car park that is the M50 and the port tunnel were blocked this morning, causing chaos for hundreds of thousands of commuters. The virtual metro is supposed to be in operation this year.
There were 40,000 operations cancelled and 29,000 people are waiting to see a consultant. Why must four out of five patients wait at least 12 weeks to see a consultant or have endoscopy investigations carried out? I pointed out yesterday the seriousness of the situation where a GP in Kildare said the system had effectively killed a patient and a consultant in Tralee said that patients die while on the waiting list for endoscopy investigations. I pointed out what is happening in hospital after hospital.
After making those five promises, do any of them keep the Taoiseach awake at night? If he could go back over the past ten years, given the economic strength brought about by the workers of Ireland, which of them would he deliver on? Will the Taoiseach admit that his much vaunted promises have ended in failure? He promised a lot but there is still a lot to be done.
I was going to say that Deputy O'Connor's posters caused the rumpus on the M50 this morning but obviously that is not the case.
I know Deputy Kenny admitted last week that if he has the opportunity he will do away with remission for prisoners. I do not know if the Labour Party would support that if it is ever with him in government, but prisoners will note that remission for ordinary prisoners will be taken away if Deputy Kenny has an opportunity to do so.
On class size, there are almost 5,000 more primary school teachers than in 2002 and 8,000 more teachers. Class sizes have reduced dramatically, with the average primary class size falling to 24. With the unprecedented increases in support staff, there is now one teacher for every 17 primary school children, down from one for every 22.
Children who need extra help are getting more support than ever before and the majority of extra teachers hired have been targeted, rightly, to provide extra support for children with special needs, those in disadvantaged areas and those who need help with their English. Not only have these additional teachers made an immeasurable difference in the lives of all these children, they provide vital back-up in the classrooms. The policies we have implemented have helped, with more than 1,200 extra teachers in primary schools in the past few years.
At second level, there is now one teacher for every 13 students. That is a considerable reduction on the figure in 1997. Those are the facts.
As I said yesterday, as in every health service in the world, there are clearly some difficulties in some areas of health, although not in a large proportion of areas. I acknowledge what has been achieved: a 7% increase in day care cases to over 590,000, an increase in outpatient attendances to more than 2.766 million, over 1.2 million attendances at accident and emergency departments and substantially reduced waiting times. Treatment is provided for 150,000 cancer patients and treatment is provided for 17,000 inpatients and appointments have been arranged for 9,000 outpatients under the National Treatment Purchase Fund.
There are 780,000 extra home care hours, bringing the total to 11.8 million, additional home care packages and additional day care packages. Every day there are new announcements and new movements helping the health service.
It shows the huge success of the tunnel in only a few months that as soon as there was a delay everything happened. I was waiting since Christmas to see what day would the Opposition stand up, but it had to wait, because it is a huge success, another massive part of the planning infrastructure of the Government.
I remind Members of the House that it is Leaders' Questions and only the leaders of the parties are entitled to submit a question and a member of the Government responds. I ask Members to behave in some reasonable manner so the Member submitting the question and the Taoiseach replying can do so in silence.
If the Taoiseach keeps this up, he can be his own warm-up man for the jamboree at the weekend.
Yesterday I asked, and the Taoiseach refused to answer, how many tens of millions of euro of taxpayers' money will be bestowed on the lads from the tent at the Galway Races to build private hospitals on the public grounds of our existing hospitals. This morning, I would like to raise another public expenditure decision, related to the subject matter of a parliamentary question on 22 February, where the questioners were advised that it was expected to identify the preferred bidder for the prison at Thornton Hall by the end of February 2007. Was the preferred bidder identified by the end of February, as pledged, and will the Taoiseach tell us who it is?
How does he propose to protect taxpayers' money in the contract, given the record on this site? The Comptroller and Auditor General, in his report for the year 2005, published in September 2006, deplored the manner of purchase of the lands at Thornton Hall and said that at least twice the market value was paid for them. He went on to say: "In the circumstances, a well managed, confidential, 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."
Mr. Purcell, although working in the abstract, turned out to be right. At the weekend we learned that the adjacent site, which was inspected by the perceptive Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, at the time as a possible alternative, was sold recently for €100,000 per acre, whereas the Minister paid €200,000 per acre for the site at Thornton Hall. This is the man who lectures those on this side of the House on economics and hard decision taking. They say a fool and his money is easily parted but the Minister is no fool and the money he was parted from was taxpayers' money doled out in the most foolish purchase because, as the Comptroller and Auditor General said, they saw him coming. Imagine putting it around that one had €30 million to spend and asking if anyone could come up with a site. What does he expect in those circumstances? This is the most profligate waste of taxpayers' money by a blundering Minister that rivals——
——anything Deputy Kenny has instanced about the other decisions on which the Taoiseach wasted so much money during the lifetime of this Government. What guarantees can the Taoiseach give the taxpayer that this pattern on the Thornton Hall project will not continue? I notice the Minister forgot to factor in an access to the site. The Lord knows how much he will pay for the roadway in because they know he is coming now. He appears to be an easy touch but he is paying with taxpayers' money, yet the Taoiseach boasts about the progress made on the prisons. This is a laughable decision by an incompetent Government.
The Government's view is that we wanted to build a modern prison that had all the facilities unlike some of our prisons that have deplorable facilities and bad sanitary facilities, which have been highlighted in the yearly reports from the prison inspectorate. We wanted to build a state-of-the-art prison on a large site that could accommodate a large prison, with all the ancillary facilities, on the outskirts of the city. A number of sites were checked. This site was sourced. The contracts were prepared. Deputy Rabbitte said we should not have made public the figure. When we were dealing with the metro a few weeks ago Deputy Rabbitte demanded of me that we should make public the figure. He now says we should not have made public the figure. In the other case he wanted the figures published. It is an inconsistency in his argument. The Government's position is that we want to build a modern prison on a substantive site that has all the facilities for prisoners in the 21st century, with proper security and access. Controversies will always arise when a prison is being built although having been involved in a different Ministry some years ago when the prison in Castlerea was opened, people were glad of a prison in their area from an employment and security point of view. This is the site we opted for and the one on which we will build a prison. That is the Government's position.
It is not my view. It is the view of the Comptroller and Auditor General. It is the view of experts who saw the sale of the adjacent site at the weekend. It is not akin to Castlerea. If the Taoiseach believes the people at Killsallaghan have the same view as the people of Castlerea, he should make one of his flying visits to the area. He moves around the country faster than the MRSA bug. The Taoiseach claims to defend this decision, which is such a manifest waste of money he can send out his very sincere Minister for Social and Family Affairs yesterday to lecture this side of the House on public expenditure decisions. This is the same Minister, Deputy Seamus Brennan, who went to Cork and told the people he would give them an airport debt free.
——because it would cause a flight of capital. This is the same Minister, Deputy Seamus Brennan, who was the architect of the 1977 package of proposals and who puts on his very sincere face and tells the Opposition that their proposals will cost too much. I wonder in that instance what he thinks of the proposals of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell——
——who promised to spend €6.8 billion at his party conference. The Taoiseach is in no position to lecture about value for money and waste of public money when he stands over a decision like Thornton Hall. It has been a waste of money. It did not meet valuation criteria. It was embarked on in the manner that has been rigorously criticised not by me but by the Comptroller and Auditor General, yet the Taoiseach tells this House and says he wants a leading prison. So what? Why did he not buy one or build one and get value for money rather than giving away tens of millions of taxpayers' money in this fashion that has been indicted by people who know what they are talking about? The adjacent site sold for half of the value. The Comptroller and Auditor General said the evaluation criteria was not followed and now we are stuck with it.
The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has given full documents and details to the Comptroller and Auditor General and I will not go into that debate here. I should have said to Deputy Rabbitte that the evaluation has been completed and I understand the preferred bidder will be announced by Easter. We required a modern, stand alone large prison on a secure site that had adequate facilities.
It is the same old story with the Opposition. They criticise existing facilities but we are trying to improve the lot of unfortunate people in society who require proper facilities when they are incarcerated. That is a fair approach.
I am surprised at the members of the Labour Party. If my colleague, Deputy Joe Costello, who is the leader of the prisoners' rights organisation, were here he would be appalled to hear the Labour Party Members opposing prisons.
Is the Taoiseach aware that many thousands of medical card holders are being deprived of dental treatment to which they are entitled because dentists have felt compelled to withdraw from the dental service treatment scheme? Is he further aware that this situation is set to worsen as the Irish Dental Association is in the course of a ballot of its members to withdraw from the scheme in protest at the failure of the Health Service Executive and the Department of Health and Children to engage with the association and complete a thorough review of the scheme? Is the Taoiseach aware that because of this and the impending result of that ballot, medical card holders are now being denied access to critical dental treatment through the general medical services scheme upon which they are totally dependent? Would the Taoiseach not agree that the scheme is far from comprehensive? However, we are now faced with its total collapse. Can the Taoiseach confirm that part of the reason for the current impasse is the advice received by the HSE and the Department of Health and Children from the Attorney General claiming that they cannot negotiate fees for this scheme with the Irish Dental Association because of the Competition Act? Is this the same advice that has been given regarding the role of the Irish Pharmaceutical Union in representing its membership?
Whatever the legal position, does the Taoiseach realise that if this problem is not resolved the scheme will collapse and many people will be left without the treatment to which they are entitled? Will he urge the Minister for Health and Children to immediately intervene and use her offices to facilitate the recommencement of direct engagement with the Irish Dental Association to stave off the worst-case scenario that I indicated earlier?
The dental service that operates at the moment is a very good service and we certainly do not want a disruption of that service. The private dentists who operate the system are a hugely valuable part of providing the services for medical card patients. This issue, like the pharmacy issue, has gone on for some considerable time. The negotiations have been ongoing in one form or another for several years. However, the Government must keep the dentists as part of the system because otherwise we would not be able to run the service. At the same time we must protect public expenditure and taxpayers' interest in it. It is the intention of the Minister, the Department of Health and Children and all of us to ensure the service continues. There is ongoing attention. The negotiations between the Irish Dental Association and the Department have been quite a long-running saga.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. However, he has not indicated whether he will use his position as Taoiseach to impress on the Minister the importance of her immediately intervening to break the logjam. Now is the time to do it, in advance of any decision by the members of the Irish Dental Association. As the Taoiseach should know dentists have been pulling——
——out of this scheme in ever increasing numbers from as far back as 2005. Dental treatment is supposed to be a key element of primary care provision, something to which the Taoiseach and his Government are allegedly committed — another one of the promises referred to already this morning. In reality we do not have the network of primary care centres including dental providers, both dentists and the various skilled people across that discipline, providing this service, all of which was promised within the health strategy. Why has all this been dropped? What is the Taoiseach now prepared to do to rescue the situation——
——particularly for those who are dependent on medical cards for access to the whole raft of health care services including dental services? These are the people who will now suffer most from a further deterioration of the situation between the Irish Dental Association, the HSE and the Department of Health and Children. Ultimately the buck stops with the Taoiseach. What is he now prepared to do about it?
I will not intervene in a process that has been ongoing for some time. The negotiations are going on. The service has improved. The Deputy is incorrect. The dental service has improved in schools and for the general public through community medicine and the primary care teams. These are industrial relations negotiations about the fee and remuneration dentists will receive. Obviously the Government supports trying to reach a conclusion to that. We value the professionalism of our dentists who operate the scheme for medical card holders. As in any industrial relations issue, we need to ensure we negotiate a package that is fair to all sides.