Dáil Éireann - Volume 548 - 14 February, 2002

Finance Bill, 2002: Second Stage (Resumed).

  Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

  Mr. M. Ahern: As I was saying yesterday evening, careful economic and budgetary management provide the most sound basis for our future. That drives this Fianna Fáil-led Government's aim to secure a basis for further growth, reward work and effort, develop infrastructure, distribute resources fairly and create a society that can look forward with confidence. Over the past four and a half years, we were responsible for the most sustained and significant strengthening of the economy. We now enjoy the highest level of employment in our history. Fianna Fáil, and our junior partners, the Progressive Democrats, have generated over 350,000 jobs, cut employment to its lowest level since modern statistics commenced, substantially increased people's real incomes, boosted productivity of the workforce and successfully introduced major reform of the taxation system, while putting more money into people's pockets and improving their quality of life.

  We ensured that our social inclusion policies were delivered on by utilising the fruits of economic success to benefit the socially excluded, the widowed, elderly, children, disabled and all in need. Our core promises at the last election were to cut unemployment, taxes, and crime, and to build a lasting peace on this island. We delivered spectacularly on all of them.

  In the Forfás 2001 review, published yesterday, chief executive Mr. John Travers said that given the unexpected high level of downturn in the world economy, Ireland's overall economic performance and job creation and maintenance in 2001 was highly creditable. During 2001, the unemployment rate in an increasing labour force fell to under 4%, its lowest level since the foundation of the State. Mr. Travers said that, despite the threat from the current global economic downturn, there are positive features which can help Ireland navigate safely through the current stormy economic waters. These include the highest ever level of employment despite the setbacks of 2001; a trade in goods and services sector – both Irish and foreign owned – which is more competitive than it has ever been in terms of productivity, sectoral positioning, technology, marketing capability, and managerial competence; a capital investment programme under the national development plan which is making progress in addressing infrastructural deficiencies and which, in the medium term, will provide a high level modern infrastructural base for future growth; and the beginnings of the foundations of future high levels of growth and living standards through the significant increase in investment in research and development by Forfás, the Science Found[852] ation of Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, the universities and other research funding bodies.

  Many politicians and commentators should take note of Mr. Traver's positive comments and should acknowledge and acclaim the positive achievements of the people and all Governments over the past ten years instead of downgrading our economic success. Criticism is welcome, provided it is constructive and we can learn from it but totally negative comment does not do the country any good.

  Deputy McCreevy has marked himself out as an outstanding Minister for Finance who understood what had to be done to bring our taxation system into the third millennium and to progress the economy. I am proud to have been associated with him in the preparation of the Fianna Fáil taxation policy document prior to the last election from which 99% of the taxation changes of the past five years flowed. We were not dictated to by a political party which some claimed was the only one concerned with tax reduction. Every political party is concerned to reduce tax, but we acted upon our concern. We analysed what needed to be done to drive the economy forward and Deputy McCreevy, as the Minister for Finance, delivered, a fact recognised by workers and taxpayers who will show their thanks in the ballot box at the next election.

  This Bill includes personal, business, housing related and other taxation matters designed to benefit individual taxpayers, promote business growth and ensure fairness in the tax system. As I said last night, the Minister provided for a further €634 million in personal tax reductions and his focus is directed at helping those at the lower end of the income scale. That means that in addition to the €3.5 billion in the previous four budgets, there is now another €634 million which shows there has been a tremendous amount of money given back to the people in the past five years.

  The entry point to the tax system was raised from €183 last year to €209 this year, a 14.5% increase to a threshold of 90% of the current industrial wage. Give us another year and the entry point will be equal to the industrial wage; the mind boggles at what we will do for the following four years. We will reduce the tax burden more and more.

  Income tax exemption limits for those aged 65 and over have increased by over 20% from €7,900 to €13,000 or £6,290 to £10,238 for a single or widowed person and this is to be welcomed. A single person over 65 would have to earn more than €13,000 before having any tax liability and a married couple would need to earn €26,000 before being liable for taxation. The exemption limits have doubled since 1997-8.

  The single standard tax rate band has been widened to €28,000 or £22,000, an increase of €2,605 or £2,000 on last year. Personal taxation measures mean a further 79,000 low income earners have been removed from the tax net, while 57,000 have been taken off the high rate. This continues the [853] movement out of the tax net of thousands of people on low incomes, a target we set on getting into Government and on which we have delivered.

  Under section 5, the allowance in respect of a person caring for an incapacitated family member has been significantly increased from €12,700 to €30,000 with tax allowable at the marginal rate. I welcome this provision and also welcome the extension of the medical relief claims under section 9 to include payments not only to immediate family members but to other family members, as outlined in the section, and non-relatives. This is very wise and will be beneficial to society in general.

  Under section 15, the BES and seed capital schemes have been extended for a further two years, while the company limit has been increased from €317,500 to €750,000. It was reduced some years ago but is now being extended again. This is welcome in order to ensure continued growth in indigenous industry. Despite our successes over the past five years especially, there is still a need to increase the number of indigenous industries and to put them on a sound basis so they will continue to produce jobs and wealth for the years ahead. Increasing the time frame and financial limits for the BES is welcome, as is the extension of the seed capital scheme refund period from five to six years. I have discussed this with my constituents and that extra year will be very helpful. The seed capital scheme has been very beneficial to many people in setting up their businesses. The reduction of employers' PRSI contributions will also help to save and create jobs.

  Following the Bacon reports, overheating in the house market was quenched. However, there were also negative aspects to that, such as the decision by many investors to send money abroad and purchase houses in Spain and the south of France. I wish them success though they will be dealing with tax authorities in those areas if they need to sell those properties and those authorities may not be as soft and lenient as ours. That is another day's work. The money going abroad meant there was a shortage of rental property here resulting in an increase in rents. It was necessary to change the system and the Minister for Finance took wise decisions by reintroducing interest relief for investors and changing stamp duty. There has been an increase in housing and that industry is now in a fairly satisfactory condition. Student accommodation is something all Members will know about. It comes to the fore every September, when our sons, daughters and constituents have problems finding rented accommodation. I welcome the extension of the tax incentive scheme to September 2005 because it is important that accommodation is available to students.

  Capital allowances, as we are well aware, were available over a seven year period at 15% per year for the first six years with the balance due in the last year. The Minister has reduced the write-off period to five years. That is more sensible and [854] is in keeping with what happens in business. It will be 20% in a straight line following this Bill which I welcome. I also welcome the clarification that, with certain conditions, milk quota purchases after 1 April 2001 will qualify for capital allowances.

  Section 39 is a new provision which gives relief to individuals and companies for donations to certain sports bodies for the funding of capital projects. Over the last number of years there has been a drying up of funds for capital programmes in localities because of the large demands on people in their parishes for many different types of building projects. GAA, soccer and rugby clubs must collect money to buy pitches before doing some work on them. Their members then demand more sophisticated facilities and that means more money is needed but one cannot keep going back to the well. This section's tax relief will be of benefit to those looking for funds, as companies and individuals can see they will get something out of it. This should help to raise funds for sports projects.

  Regarding capital gains tax, I welcome the extension of the rollover relief, particularly in relation to farmers who have had land taken from them under compulsory purchase orders due to road developments. Many farmers were extremely worried about the consequences of facing large tax bills under the old system. However, the Minister has alleviated the problems by introducing changes in the Finance Bill.

  As regards capital gains tax, perhaps the Minister would consider granting tax relief to owners of caravan sites. They are not allowed any relief if they transfer their caravan business to their sons or daughters. For many people that is their only business and I ask the Minister to consider their request for relief.

  The VAT ceiling for registration of services is £20,000, while it is £40,000 for trading in goods. That has been the ceiling for many years. It is time to review that and perhaps to increase it to keep in line with inflation. Some £20,000 is a small sum of money, given the extra costs faced by small business people, such as electricians and fitters, who will not make a large profit if they have a turnover of £20,000 or £25,000. I ask the Minister to table an amendment to that effect on Committee Stage.

  The Fine Gael Party was always considered to be solid, mercantilist and the legal bastion of our society. However, panic has struck at its heart. It has made outrageous promises in recent weeks, such as that to pay back Eircom shareholders who lost money. If people had sold their shares when they were at a high price, they would have made money. If the Vodafone shares had increased and people had been paid back their losses, would the Fine Gael Party have tried to recoup the money paid to them?

  Mr. Bradford: I will communicate with the Deputy.

[855]   Mr. M. Ahern: The Deputy can take that up with his party. It also made promises about taxis. There are demands for everything from that side of the House.

  Mr. Bradford: The Deputy has his own taxi forum.

  Mr. M. Ahern: Fine Gael is floundering like a beached whale and is clutching at any straw. The party which liked to pretend to the people that it was the party of principle, honesty and integrity has let the veil slip and is willing to use any manner of means to cross the floor of the House.

  Mr. Bradford: Sounds like Fianna Fáil.

  Mr. M. Ahern: The end now justifies the means.

  Mr. E. Ryan: It has jumped on a shipwreck.

  Mr. M. Ahern: It is a step down from the days of Mr. Cosgrave. It is sad to see such a proud party as Fine Gael descend into the murky waters.

  I congratulate the Minister for Finance not only for this Finance Bill but for the four previous superb Finance Bills he introduced in the House. He has delivered reduced rates for income tax, corporation tax and capital gains tax. He has made the tax system fairer by introducing tax credits which ensure that all taxpayers benefit equally from reliefs.

  Mr. Bradford: He introduced tax amnesties.

  Mr. E. Ryan: That was done by the Labour Party.

  Mr. M. Ahern: He has closed off tax loopholes and broadened the tax base. He has streamlined and reformed the tax system in a range of areas. I am happy to support the Minister in the tremendous work he has done. I hope the House agrees with my praise for him. I commend the Bill to the House.

  Mr. M. Higgins: I wish to share my time with Deputy Rabbitte.

  Acting Chairman (Mr. McGrath): Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Mr. M. Higgins: A certain image of Ireland emerges from the Lenten pastoral I have just heard and from the Minister's speech. It is interesting to think of the essential elements. There is not any commitment to citizenship. No one will spend a penny or spend any time or effort because it is good in itself for society, for one's neighbour and for generations to come. Everyone must be at least lured into parting with their money for every social expenditure. Students are not entitled to student accommodation as of right unless one can attract specu[856] lators into the market who make a killing and, as a type of unintended consequence, the number of rental units increase. Equally, the sick are not entitled to hospital beds as of right because the State must not be allowed to spend public money on public health. One must lure private investors into health care. I listened to the speech and the glowing tribute by the last speaker, but I remind him of one of the significant changes in the Bill. The number of beds the private investors in medicine must provide to qualify for tax incentives is being reduced in the Bill.

  The tax incentives for park and ride facilities raise the question as to whether they are proper. Would it have been an idea to increase the public subvention to State companies?

  Mr. E. Ryan: The Deputy's leader introduced that.

  Mr. M. Higgins: I would not advise the Minister of State to interrupt because I might extend my time and I have a lot to say about his area of responsibility. We have witnessed in the five Finance Bills – it is seven if one adds the other two – introduced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, a certain vision of society which is not his vision or that of Michael McDowell. I spoke on the Finance Bill last year and I described the lovely self-congratulatory little smirk he gave when he was described in The Daily Telegraph as the Celtic Thatcher. I want the public to know about the idea that no one does anything from a sense of citizenship. One must cripple the State; the State must not invest in public health. There must be private investment with a limited number of beds for public access. The Minister was lobbied and he said yes.

  The Minister and his Government will be judged by a simple test not done by me or people who are ideologically of the left, but by those who objectively make measures on the proportion of gross domestic product that is spent on such things as social protection. What do we mean by social protection? Do we mean care of the young, the elderly or the disabled? There are approximately 12 indicators in total and approximately eight are common to the 15 European Union countries. The Minister of State referred to when we were in power in 1997. We spent too little a proportion of our gross domestic product on social protection, at 17.2%. However, in 1998 as the economy began to produce record surpluses, the figure fell to 16.1%, which was the first full year of the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats coalition. According to EUROSTAT, the EU statistical office, it declined to 14.7% in 1999. We spend half the European average on social protection and on the citizenship agenda of acknowledging the young and those growing old in society.

  Let us reflect on the assumptions guiding the McCreevy thinking in the Finance Bill, 2002. What kind of society is it assumed to be? It is assumed to be one where the stars are the specu[857] lators, those who play in the public space, those who entertain and perform. A dancer might have a life of seven or eight years and is the most likely performing artist to have arthritis. Does that move Deputy McCreevy? No. Does the person who is training youngsters in a voluntary capacity interest him in regard to sport? No. What interests him is those who are stars of the entertainment industry. They are nice to have around and he is trying to persuade them to be role models.

  I recall a time in politics when people were offered as role models who put the needs of society above themselves, who said it was more important to leave something after them than to consume everything. That was a vision, but what we have here is something based on shoddy economics. I challenge the Minister to show me any published statistical work in any economic journal outlining a direct relationship between cutting the top rate of income tax and creating employment. He has not ever produced any factual basis for that. It is an old ideological rant and we are likely to see a great deal more of it when we see the spectre of Michael McDowell looming over the Minister's shoulder, devoid of compassion, anti-social inclusion, could not care less, rewarding those who speculate.

  When Deputies stand up and tell me about how much has been achieved, I think of the €7 billion that has been foregone in tax, €740 million of which has been given exclusively to those on the top rate of tax. Deputy McCreevy and his Government will be judged by the equality test. How could it be that in the best of times with the economy producing record surpluses, he ends his career with those on the minimum wage still in the tax net and at the same time he has produced a litany of options for those who are paying the top rate. What moral justification was there for giving some €740 million to those on the top rate?

  What has to give way when there is a downturn in the international economy? It is public expenditure. The Minister questions the economics of the proposals of Deputy Martin, the Minster for Health and Children, and says they may not be viable. Everybody knows that money alone ploughed into hospitals will not solve the problem. Nurses and doctors need to be recruited and a career structure needs to be put in place among other things. At the basis of this is the assumption that greed is good.

  Some people believe we pay our taxes for a better society, for decent public health, public transport and to feel secure. I am proud to pay my taxes for every child in this country, including the one with special needs.

  It is a shame in 2002 that we have this smirking presentation where people stand up and say they gave those who made a killing in housing something and they are back in the market and is that not great. They gave it to those people who wanted to turn medicine into a sickness industry and are they not great. They love those lads who are around them at the racecourse and that will [858] be great too because they will not pay tax. I was the Minster for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and the Minster of State, Deputy Eoin Ryan, knows as many of the artists, as I do, who are in terrible difficulties. They have a short working career and at 50 and 60 years of age can hardly pay their rent, or electricity bills. I know the dancers who are crippled and all the other people. I know Charles Lynch, the wonderful and distinguished concert pianist and the poverty he was in.

  All these people who give of themselves generously in public performance might have been recognised, might have qualified for pensions and tax credits. That could have been looked at but instead it was suggested that the twits who are around our lovely lads deserve it. Apart from the absurdity of ignoring those who are working voluntarily in favour of those who are working for commercial reasons, it is the mind set that one creates a new consuming elite that is central to a vision of a miserable society, one so shrunk that it no longer deals with poverty issues. We get an abuse of parliament when one Deputy after another stands up saying a mantra. They are glad to say that over the past five years so much has been spent on this and that. I even heard some Deputies saying that Fianna Fáil reduced unemployment – as if in fact they were running the economy. Fianna Fáil, good luck to it, has always been good at taking credit, but the one thing for which it had responsibility, as every other party has in here, is to say what kind of society it is trying to create. That will require saying unpopular things. I could not stand here and say we could promise to reduce the top rate of tax further while there was necessary spending required in public health or education and I would not do it.

  As somebody who worked as an academic for 25 years I repeat my accusation to the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, that there is not an ounce of intellectual basis for his thinking in regard to the economy and financial management. There is no evidence that reducing the top rate of tax automatically creates employment. There is no evidence either that having free capital movements internationally is of great advantage to the international economy. It is time the Minster came in here and stopped giving us statements from the form book that passes for finance speeches and states the assumptions upon which his policies are based. Lest anyone think I exaggerate one bit, I have worked on his figures. A sum of €7 billion was given in tax relief, of that 43% was in tax credits that benefited all, 16% was cuts to the standard rate, which are available to all of those not just those on the standard rate and 11% of the €7 billion went exclusively to those on the top rate of tax.

  One does not need to be a rocket scientist or to subscribe to many newspapers to see that if one is on the top rate of tax one has a surplus. This is a savage ignoring of people's needs. Fianna Fáil Deputies say they want to claim it for themselves, they were not made to do it by the [859] Progressive Democrats, it is really new Fianna Fáil. Whether it is new Fianna Fáil or new Progressive Democrats or resurrected “McDowellism”, it is a savage uncaring vision of Ireland and it is one that should be condemned.

  When young people ask me about life in politics, I say the best of people in all the parties went into politics for things that were beyond themselves. They did not go in so they could aspire one day to be in the most important position in the Cabinet and to be able to get up after five years and say to the rich that they were wonderful and there are a few of the lads they have not fixed up yet. That is what brought politics into disgrace and I hope the public speak on Michael McDowell, that they look hard at what he stands for and they will see an ugly insular greedy version of Ireland. I hope they will announce their verdict on it and that they come out to vote and state their opinions. There is so much more I could say, but I will reserve it for another occasion.

  The people of my constituency about whom I will think as I travel back there this weekend are those who have children with special needs or who care for people with special needs. They have devoted their lives to the care of other persons. I will think of the carers who are means tested. How can I attend a meeting with them and say, “It is a pity you are not a jockey or a commercial sportsman because the Minister could have done something for you“? It is time for a different vision and for an alternative to what has been inflicted on the people for the past five years.

  Mr. Rabbitte: In what my colleague, Deputy Michael Higgins, has referred to as a Lenten pastoral from the Taoiseach, we were exhorted not to criticise negatively the economy and to avoid hyperbole. I take up that challenge. I do not say the stewardship of the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, has been a disaster, but it has been unfair, unjust and anti-egalitarian. We have had five wasted years during the period of greatest wealth generation this economy has ever seen. The Fianna Fáil backbenchers who have contributed to this Second Stage debate have urged the House to join in the paeans of praise to the Minister. According to them we live in the best of all possible worlds. It is not to criticise negatively to say that is not the case.

  If you compare the lot of the citizens of this country with those of some others internationally, the above is fair enough. Of course, that is not the context in which the argument is made. The context is, as Deputy Michael Higgins has said, that Fianna Fáil want to take credit for what it says is the best of all possible worlds created under the stewardship of the Minister for Finance and that without that party we would not have had the progress made in recent years. We have made progress, but let us look at the reality. What are the indicators at the end of the Minister's period in office? Let us regard the Finance Bill, 2002, [860] as an audit of his five years and as an audit of the economy as he leaves it, compared to what it was when he found it. If one takes any of the indicators, such as personal taxation, there have, of course, been reductions. There have been serious reductions for the highest earners.

  On budget day the Minister told us there was likely to be 3.5% growth, but there has been no growth in the economy since then. The downturn began as long ago as this time last year, even though it was not noticed until summer or admitted until autumn. The deterioration in the public finances is alarming, though the Minister began 2001 forecasting a budget surplus of €3.2 billion. That money has disappeared like last year's snow. Through the manipulation we have discussed several times in the House, the Minister made a phoney forecast of €170 million surplus at the end of the year. The reality is that he is projecting a deficit this year just short of €3 billion, or €2.89 billion. If he is as far out on this year's figure as he was on last year's, we are staring an alarming deterioration of the public finances in the face. Unemployment figures give real and serious cause for concern. In the past three months the live register has increased by 18,000. It is not difficult to project the result if that is repeated over four quarters. It would represent a dramatic reversal of fortune in the economy and 72,000 extra unemployed. That will not happen I hope, but I do not know, any more than the Minister, when an upturn will take place, as distinct from when it is predicted in the USA and elsewhere. However, the prospect we face is of 50,000 to 60,000 people joining the live register.

  That is the economic legacy of the Minister for Finance. I understand why Fianna Fáil spokespersons concentrate on the good years and on the exceptional public finances we have had, but even during those years the Minister was like the farmer from Carrickmacross who headed to the bank the other day with £50,000 on the carrier of his bicycle. Unfortunately, along the way he lost £20,000 which was strewn behind him on the roads as he headed into the town. That is what champagne Charlie was like during the boom years. He scattered money far and wide for his wealthy friends at the K Club to pick up and, of course, they picked it up. Great wealth was made in the past five years and enormous wealth was conferred on some individuals as a result of deliberate and calculated decisions by the Minister for Finance. His latest frolic is his decision to disadvantage GAA players and amateur sports people generally. I find it difficult to believe the Taoiseach is party to this. The Minister has had a number of amazing frolics since he took office, but this is the daftest proposal I have ever heard. It is proposed to refund tax, back to 1990, to the highest paid sports professionals.

  The Minister is given to awarding taxpayers' money to the better off. He did it when he halved capital gains tax and he is doing it again for the wealthiest sports people. The thousands who play Gaelic games for no financial reward are [861] excluded from this proposal, as are tens of thousands involved in other amateur sports. How can Fianna Fáil and a Taoiseach who has gone out of his way to colonise the GAA sit on their hands while a measure is passed by this House that so disadvantages tens of thousands of amateur sports people? Those people bring pleasure and credit to their counties and clubs nearly every month of the year. This is an insult to the GAA and to many who dedicate so much of their lives and free time to bringing pleasure to sports fans in every county. I do not know where the idea came from. It seems to be another daft K Club frolic born in Kildare amongst the well-paid professional jockeys with whom the Minister plays golf. Tremendously successful sportsmen like Mick Kinnane do not need the taxpayers' largesse in this fashion. Our newly professional high-earning rugby professionals do not need this kind of taxpayers' handout. Indeed, the same can be said for our mega-wealthy sports stars in the area of motor rallying.

  There are several sensible ways in which the Minister could have come up with methods of honouring the tremendous contribution of sportspeople in society. One can compare the position of, say, the modern rugby player with that of the top-class Gaelic footballer, from whom is expected virtual professional application and standards but for whom no recompense of any kind is contemplated. Already in the capital city Gaelic games are under serious pressure and it is a factor in the current debate about the proposition to divide Dublin. Already young people are being lured into other sports which are now paying a handsome dividend. This will further drain the resources of the GAA in the capital city and elsewhere. This is a bad day for the GAA, make no mistake about it. It will further widen the cleavage between those tremendous amateur sportspeople who play Gaelic games, which are still the dominant games in this country, and those who play professional sports. I do not know where the Minister got this idea, no more than I know where he got the idea to select the cider industry to be the target of a vicious increase in excise duty.

  The production of cider is an indigenous industry, mainly based in Clonmel. It uses an apple crop which is an indigenous product. Rather than looking at any other area on which he might raise excise duty, the Minister for Finance went out of his way to severely punish the cider industry, with resulting implications for it as a labour intensive industry. There does not seem to be any reason for it, other than singling out a constituency which twice rejected Fianna Fáil's efforts in by-elections. In case they did not have enough of a cross to bear, Fianna Fáil has decided to inflict Dr. Martin Mansergh on the people.

  Acting Chairman (Mrs. B. Moynihan-Cronin): The Deputy has two minutes remaining.

  Mr. Rabbitte: I regret that, Chairman, because [862] I wanted to say a few words about the extraordinary spectacle of the Progressive Democrats conference last week. I could not believe the speeches from some of the party's leading spokespersons returned to the past, to the mid-1980s. They argued, without a shred of evidence, that low taxes have produced the boom, the high investment and the high employment of the past five years. Nothing could be further from the truth. This boom did not happen under the stewardship of the present Government. It did not even happen under the stewardship of the previous Government. This goes back years to the original decisions on investment in education, to the corporate regime put in place and to the fact that skilled labour happened to be available at this particular juncture of the economic cycle. These are the factors which produced the boom and for any Fianna Fáil or Progressive Democrats speaker to claim that the slash and cut of high taxes has produced this economic performance is manifest nonsense and they know it. I was amused at the Fianna Fáil Deputies seeking to disown the Progressive Democrats on that particular agenda.

  Apart from the indicators to which I have referred, the other indicator which affects the lives of most ordinary people, though maybe not the habitués of the K Club, is the quality of our public services. Our public services, like health, housing and public transport, are left in a shambles after the most bountiful period this economy has ever seen. That is the legacy of the Minister for Finance. It is on the basis of how it has impacted on the quality of life of ordinary people that he ought to be judged. On that basis he will be judged harshly.

  Minister of State at the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Byrne): I wish to share time with my colleague who is from Kilkenny, Deputy John McGuinness.

  I am delighted to have the opportunity to address the House on a small but very significant inclusion in the Finance Bill regarding shipping and in particular the continuance of vessels to be registered in this country. The introduction of a tonnage tax for the shipping industry in this Bill again underlines the full commitment of this Government to the regeneration of the shipping industry and shipping services sector. Under tonnage tax a company is taxed on the tonnage of its fleet rather than on notional corporate profits. The EU Commission strongly advocates this regime for Europe's shipping sector. Tonnage tax schemes have already been successfully introduced in countries such as Britain, Holland and Germany. This major new initiative, which has received fulsome plaudits from the industry, has already paid dividends, with Arklow Shipping having registered its newest ship on the Irish register. The company has also signalled its intention to bring back to the Irish flag ships which it has registered in the Netherlands because of the beneficial tax concessions obtainable there.

[863]   The tonnage tax augments a range of other fiscal measures introduced by this Government in an effort to address shortfalls in the development of the industry. The Government's approval for this unique flat rate tax linked to tonnage will act as a catalyst to regenerate the shipping industry. The industry has contracted in recent years but this new tax regime will provide it with a more attractive and enhanced fiscal environment. It will offer certainty and clarity for future investment and ensure the Irish shipping industry remains as competitive as those in other member states.

  This initiative augments major new policy directions for the shipping industry and on-shore shipping services sector. These include the setting up of a dedicated shipping development office, the Irish Maritime Development Office, the development of a new maritime college in Cork, the introduction of the special £5,000 seafarers' income tax allowance and full refund of employers of seafarers PRSI payments.

  Shipping companies will now have the choice to opt for this new form of corporation tax, based not on actual profits or losses but essentially on the size or tonnage of their ships. This greater choice, flexibility and certainty will safeguard and grow the Irish ship register. We have been assured by Irish fleet operators that they will keep their ships on the Irish register, cease flagging out and grow their businesses in Ireland. I am confident that EU state aid approval for the new shipping tax will be quickly forthcoming, as our intention in this Finance Bill is to mirror the best of similar tax regimes currently applicable in many other member states.

  In their statement welcoming the tonnage tax the IMDO confirmed it will protect the long-term future of the industry and help secure jobs both on-shore and at sea. Mr. Padraic White, chairman of the advisory group to the Irish Maritime Development Office, welcomed the decision and said the budget has sent a message of hope for all those who believe in Ireland's maritime potential. I agree with that assessment, and we can reasonably look forward to the day when Ireland will capture a share of the expanding international shipping industry and its technical support services and reverse the tragic decline of ships registered in and operating out of Ireland. I was at a shipping conference in Cyprus recently and discovered that almost one fifth of the global fleet is based there. That is remarkable for a country as small as that and it sends a clear signal to a maritime nation such as ours that we should be doing much better. With the tonnage tax I believe we will take steps to redress that balance. Glenn Murphy, director of the IMDO, also welcomed the budget announcement saying:

    The industry was on the brink of complete collapse. Many of our larger owners, such as Irish Ferries and Arklow Shipping, would have been compelled to lower the Irish flag and relocate their core business structures to another [864] country if the tonnage tax regime had not been announced this year.

Our shipping industry and the skills of our seafarers have long been part of our success as a trading nation. Whilst still significant, the Irish shipping industry has been in steady decline, yet growth in world trade offers significant prospects for its expansion. Our stock of skilled seafarers has also been declining and their average age increasing. Successive Governments have sought through training grants and substantial tax breaks to arrest that decline, but the most that can be said for those past attempts is that they have diminished its pace. However, the Government's approval for the development of a new state-of-the-art National Maritime College at Ringaskiddy, County Cork, will address the training requirements of the sector and attract new entrants to seafaring as a career.

  Without a user friendly and virtually tax-exempt environment there is no real prospect of achieving the objective of Government policy, namely, the revival of the shipping industry. A tonnage-based form of corporation tax is a key strategy to achieve the required fiscal environment. With the addition of a tonnage tax I am fully confident that Ireland can successfully develop its on-shore maritime sector. We have the English language and a UK style legal system, we are in the eurozone and will shortly have Europe's most recently introduced ship registration and tonnage tax provisions, as well as a standard rate of corporation tax of 12.5 %. With the new maritime college due to come on stream in 2003, all augurs well for the future with the provision of the right fiscal environment for shipping and seafarers; a new state of the art National Maritime College; a dedicated development office for our shipping and shipping services sector, the IMDO; and a Government committed to the development of the industry.

  While speaking on the issue of taxation, I would like to bring to the attention of the House a matter which has been brought to my attention in recent times, namely, the status of caravan parks. I refer to the issue of the non-availability of business property relief from capital acquisitions tax to caravan park operators. This puts caravan park operators at a disadvantage compared to most other businesses. I feel that it would be timely to harmonise the existing regulations whereby the activity carried out is treated as a trade for income tax, capital gains tax, corporation tax and value added tax, while for capital acquisitions it is effectively treated as short-term lettings.

  I have noted in the Finance Bill that a previous inequity whereby property held personally which is used for a trade carried out by a company can now qualify for capital gains tax retirement relief. This amendment effectively synchronises with the existing position in capital acquisitions tax law whereby business property relief is available on assets held personally. I ask that consideration now be given to capital acquisitions tax legislation [865] so that is amended to bring it into line with all the other tax heads that apply to the activity carried out.

  Mr. McGuinness: I have listened to many contributions in this debate and was impressed by a number of them. I compliment Deputies Rabbitte and Michael D. Higgins on their contributions and I am glad to see that there is still some passion left in the debate.

  Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I would like to hear something similar from Deputy McGuinness.

  Mr. McGuinness: My problem with the Finance Bill is that this House is meant to scrutinise spending on an ongoing basis and be accountable to the public. Our hands are tied and our opportunities for getting information from various Departments, by way of parliamentary questions or the organised contribution system, are limited. Alongside the Finance Bill and other financial measures we deal with in this House, I believe there should be a greater opportunity for Members to scrutinise the spend of the organisations that we allocate money to and are directly connected with Departments such as local government, the NRA and health boards. That we have to distance these organisations from us, almost as if they might become in some way corrupt if they were any closer, is a notion I do not agree with. I would prefer to see greater scrutiny in these areas and I believe the public would also prefer that.

  Why should local government be at a distance from us? Why should the NRA, an organisation that spends a considerable amount of Government allocated money, be removed so far from the Oireachtas that we cannot get information from them directly? They are spending large amounts of taxpayers' money and we owe it to the people who have worked hard and paid that tax to spend the money with the same diligence and scrutiny as it took them to earn it. That is a measure that will have to be corrected in this House in the short term. That is particularly pertinent when one reflects on the Local Government Act, 2000, and the request from the Minister for the Environment and Local Government for Members to reflect on their holding a dual mandate. I do not mind giving up the dual mandate if I have a purpose and function in this House allowing me to deal with the issues of the day. Let me be honest, that is not the case. Until such time as that is the case I, and many like me, will continue to want to be at the source of information in local government, namely, membership of county councils and corporations. Maybe it is a challenge for the Cabinet to ensure that the reform to give that scrutiny and give Members greater purpose is delivered. Until that happens, I will continue to play my role as a member of a local authority.

  We have heard about the effects of 11 September and we must reflect on what has hap[866] pened in the economy since then. Tourism is our greatest asset, it is a product we can market and rely on to draw huge numbers of visitors. Tourism benefits the regions and every small town and village in this State. Much more needs to be done in this area. We must market this country more effectively than is currently done. Part of that marketing is linked to the work undertaken by organisations such as Dúchas. We pride ourselves on having a considerable number of national monuments. A number of key national monuments, such as Kilkenny Castle, the Rock of Cashel and many others, are very well managed and looked after and attract large numbers of visitors. As people come to know Ireland, they want to see more than our flagship monuments. They want to visit many counties and see at first hand what is available under the auspices of Dúchas, but not yet restored.

  I would like that organisation to be more efficient in how it spends money and to spread it to monuments other than flagship monuments. I can think of many in my constituency, such as Kells Priory, the largest medieval monastic ruin in Europe, which is falling down. Money has been allocated to it but there is no ongoing restoration or maintenance programme for it. There is no activity within Dúchas whereby such monuments would be given as much priority as others. While I agree that the flagship monuments need to be tended to, there should be a pecking order and a spread of the money spent to ensure such heritage gems as Kells Priory are maintained.

  Dúchas should also examine its operational efficiency and the efficiency with which it spends money. Perhaps it is time an independent audit was conducted on the structure of the body, what is expected of it in comparison with past work, how that expectation should affect its work and how and on what it should spend money. I hope we will soon debate that issue in the House to achieve greater efficiency in the spending of the money allocated to Dúchas. This is an issue to which I will return in future debates.

  The National Roads Authority should be scrutinised in the context of local government. It spends a considerable amount of money but, despite this, we do not have contact with it and there is insufficient transparency concerning its operations and where it spends money. Policy in this regard must be laid down by the House which must examine the efficiency with which the authority spends money.

  A debate took place last night in the House on transport and infrastructure. Despite the vast amount of money spent on infrastructure in the past four years, local authorities still face traffic bottlenecks and traffic management issues and still have works outstanding. I cited the example of the Kilkenny ring road. We are awaiting money from the NRA to complete that road. If this priority project were completed, we would be able to manage the traffic in Kilkenny city and to expand and move on. However, we have not yet received the money. Carlow is in the same posi[867] tion; it is choked by traffic. Vast amounts of money have been invested by the Government, yet we do not see the positive effects such investment should have in our counties and localities. This is because there is growth in the economy and an urgent demand for this type of infrastructure but the speed of delivery is not sufficient. The projects which have been on the books for some time and are in need of completion should be prioritised. We, as public representatives in this House, should have some input into how those projects are prioritised and how the policies of Government in this regard are delivered.

  This is but one issue I have with the NRA. There are others, for example, the completion of the Piltown-Fiddown bypass on which a huge amount of money was spent. Members of the local authority asked for greater safety measures to be included on that stretch of road and voted unanimously for it. Despite this, they were told it was an NRA function. As a national public representative, I raised the issue and was told I did not have any role in it either, that it was an NRA function. Who has a role in laying down policies? People expect us as public representatives to do our job and to have some input in this regard, yet we do not. We are held at arm's length as if we are a danger to the system, as if there should not be any contact with us. That is not good enough and I would like to see it changed so that we can at least begin to lobby the Minister who may, in turn, have some scope to address, for example, the concerns of the local community in the case of the Piltown-Fiddown bypass.

  Most of the replies one receives from Ministers in matters such as this, regardless of what Government is in power, state that it is not the business of the Minister but of the relevant organisation. The public who elect us hold us responsible. They have asked us to act on their behalf as their public representatives. However, to a degree, we are spancelled and cannot do our job properly because someone else is doing it for us. The sooner we in this House change that, the better.

  I have raised the issue of information technology during debates in the House. We have heard arguments about compensating people for losses incurred as a result of the Eircom flotation. It is about time that company got real. It is falling far behind in terms of information and communications technology requirements and the economy of the country will also fall behind as a result. Internet access is a huge cost to individuals and families who use it and is now also a tool for schools and businesses. It is costing jobs, the future of the country and our place in the development of a new Europe and a new world market. Nothing is being done about this. The infrastructure has been put in place in parts of the country, the cable has been laid, but it is still not operational. I have suggested to the Minister for Finance that he should perhaps tax those who have laid cable, some with the aid of grants from [868] the European Union, and have not yet made it operational. If it is of benefit to the economy, it should be in use. If it is not, the company concerned should be taxed in the same manner as the owner of a derelict building would be taxed.

  Will the Minister ensure there is engagement with service providers to ensure the costs of Internet access are reduced for individuals and people in business? Many people conducting business over the Internet pay a huge cost for it. Projects such as Young Irish Filmmakers or those involved in film production and animation suffer because the technology is not in use. If we were to bring ourselves to the cutting edge of developments in the area of technology, film production and animation, we would assist in the creation of jobs and, by presenting through technology a new form of film animation to the marketplace, create a profile for the country which would tell the rest of Europe that we are skilled and creative nation. Young skilled people are suffering because we are not doing our job in forcing companies such as Eircom and others to ensure they make the appropriate changes in the marketplace to allow us to capitalise on what is happening elsewhere in the world. This is another issue which must be taken up by the Government if we are to succeed into the future in this economy.

  We have all stated cases about the health services. The problem is similar to that concerning the delivery of infrastructure to county road level. I have seen huge increases in investment in roads in Kilkenny County Council and Borough Council, yet the effect of that investment is not seen on every road throughout the county. The delivery is too slow, despite the vast amounts of money involved. The same can be said of the health services. I have had many arguments with the health board and the Minister for Health and Children about the delivery of health services in the south-east. I have gone out on a limb on many of the issues. Despite the vast amount of money spent on Kilkenny and Waterford Regional Hospital, much more needs to be done. I continue to impress this on the Minster for Health and Children.

  Property purchased by the Department of Finance in Myshall, County Carlow, is still lying idle. I am told by the Eastern Health Board that the board has advertised for a project manager to undertake an analysis of the situation. How far has bureaucracy gone? How much money do we spend on consultants' reports and analyses to no real effect? The property in Myshall is vacant while people with autism continue to suffer. Representatives of sufferers from autism know what needs to be done and the population analysis in the south east has shown, in general, what needs to be done. Nevertheless, we are tying ourselves up in the knots of further reports from a consultant and a project manager. This is not good enough. We must take immediate action to stop this way of doing things. We have invested in a property [869] and we should know why we invested in it. We should proceed to delivering the much needed autism services in the south east region. It is farcical to proceed with further reports and analyses. I appeal to the Minister of State to tell the Department of Health and Children to get moving on this issue.

  Mr. J. O'Keeffe: The Government needs to do much more for the health services.

  Mr. McGuinness: Absolutely, but we must acknowledge what has been done.

  Mr. J. O'Keeffe: The Government has made a very bad fist of things.

  Mr. McGuinness: It is not good enough for the Opposition to come into the House every Tuesday and Wednesday evening to criticise the Government but with no policies or vision.

  Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Deputy McGuinness should be ashamed of himself.

  Mr. McGuinness: Members of the Opposition have not proposed a single policy option worthy of merit or investment. They have sat on their hands and done nothing. They blow and bluster but have no concept of what is really happening and Deputy O'Keeffe is continuing to do the same today. Something, at least, has been done in the past four and a half years and I am plotting out what needs to be done in the next few years.

  Mr. J. O'Keeffe: The Deputy can do no more than talk about what needs to be done.

  Mr. McGuinness: The Government has done a considerable amount. One need only consider the amount of money being invested.

  I recently read that the Coliseum in Rome and the ruins of Pompeii are among famous Italian historic monuments which are to be privatised next year. I do not advocate the privatisation of our national monuments—

  Mr. J. O'Keeffe: We should privatise the Fianna Fáil Party.

  Mr. McGuinness: —but I suggest that we need to attract private investors who would undertake to look at our monuments and our heritage structure. A commentator on the Italian proposal said:

    Italy's museums are just not being managed according to international standards or service. At the moment the Italian museums and monuments are in the third division in comparison with the rest of the world.

We have to take note of what is happening in the rest of the world. If the Italians are confronting their problem head on, we need to do something about ours. We should examine best practice throughout the European Union and consider [870] licensing some of the monuments which have not been fully restored and investing in them. This would attract visitors to places throughout the country and not merely to the main urban centres and it would show the whole of Ireland to the growing number of tourists who enjoy our quality of life.

  We must examine best practice in other European countries in all areas including health, education and tourism. We must be innovative in all areas for the betterment of our economy.

  Mr. J. O'Keeffe: With the approval of the House I propose to share my time with Deputy Seamus Healy.

  It is clear the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, has been guilty of monstrous incompetence while in charge of the nation's finances since 1997. The figures speak for themselves. In 1997 the figure for net current spending was just over €13 billion. The Fianna Fáil target in its election manifesto – that infamous document – and in the programme for government was for a growth in annual net current expenditure of 4%. If that target had been met net expenditure for 2002 would have been just under €16 billion. Instead the estimated figure for this year is almost €17 billion. Net current spending has more than doubled in the five years of this Government. If the Fianna Fáil target had been met the increase in current spending in the five years of this Government, even allowing for compounding, would have been less than 22%. The actual increase was almost five times higher than the target at 104%.

  One might say these are just figures. However, net current spending has more than doubled in the past five years and what have we to show for it? Such squandering of a nation's wealth must surely qualify for a gold medal for incompetence, particularly when there is nothing to show for such appalling extravagance. There is no provision in the 2002 Estimate for the health strategy, which remains a wish list. While hospital waiting lists get longer unfortunate people earning €136 per week cannot get a medical card and must pay €35 to €40 – one third of their weekly income – for a visit to the doctor. Housing lists lengthen and more than 850 schools cannot get approval for building projects.

  Never has so little been achieved at so much cost. No one can explain where all the money has gone. We are now presented with Enron type accounting to provide a facade of credibility to the nation's figures for the current year when the Government is going out of office leaving the finances in a virtually bankrupt state.

  Dr. Moffatt: There are many inaccuracies there.

  Mr. J. O'Keeffe: The figures for this year to date confirm my view and as the year goes on it will be further confirmed.

  I recall my early days in the Dáil when the [871] Fianna Fáil Government elected in 1977 increased borrowing fourfold, from £3,600 million in 1976 to £12,000 million in 1982. During all my time in politics the country has had the millstone of the monstrous borrowing splurge of the era of Mr. Jack Lynch and Mr. Martin O'Donoghue around its neck. One voice in Fianna Fáil called for fiscal rectitude and that was the voice of the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy. Nevertheless in the past five years he has destroyed his image as someone who was competent to care for the country's finances. We have had profligacy on a level of the 1977-82 era from the Minister. There has been spending at a pace which is almost five times the target with nothing to show for it. The claims, demands and just requirements of the weaker sections of the community have been ignored. That is the legacy of this Government and, in particular, the Minister, Deputy McCreevy.

  The most newsworthy item in the Finance Bill was the sportsmen's bonanza. It is fair to say the actual cost proposed is not enormous. This makes me suspect that it was a diversionary tactic by the Minister to try to get people to take their eye off the overall picture of the appalling mess of the Government finances. It is important not to divert our attention away from that mess.

  I will make a couple of comments on the tax relief for sports persons. In one sense it is a continuation of the elitist approach of the Government whereby ordinary people do not count. Ordinary people will not qualify for this relief. The same applies to the £1 billion proposed for the “Bertie bowl”. Again, ordinary people did not count. It is the same kind of thinking. I will not say that because someone is allowed tax relief I want to claw it back from them straight away. I do not see any merit in that. There are situations where one could possibly argue in favour of the proposal. It might attract some support from me if the Munster team can attract Keith Wood back to play for them.

  Let us consider this proposal as presented by the Minister. He wants to encourage world class Irish sports people to reside in Ireland and he gives a list of the various sports which will benefit. The first one is athletics. The most famous athlete I know is Sonia O'Sullivan. I do not wish to go into anyone's personal situation, but taking her as an international figure, do we have the facilities to allow her to be resident here? We do not have international competition or sporting facilities. All this has been ignored in this top-of-the-head proposal.

  Dr. Moffatt: The Deputy rejected it.

  Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Do not tell me the “Bertie bowl” will allow Sonia O'Sullivan to be resident here. Let me remind the Minister of State that she comes from Cork, many miles from the “Bertie bowl”. The point is that if there was a genuine overall effort in relation to sports people [872] it should be thought through rather than this top-of-the-head, back-of-the-envelope approach. The other main criticism is that there is nothing in it for ordinary people, and I stand for ordinary people. I would be delighted if the facilities were available for Sonia O'Sullivan. However, whatever we do must be focused on ordinary people. This proposal means nothing to ordinary men or women involved in sport because most of them are amateurs.

  There is one issue to which the Minister might turn his attention. Given the demands nowadays on football players, county teams and so on, there is a tendency to, at least, pay some expenses to those involved. Some people may say expenses are not taxable. Will the Minister check that more carefully? First, there can be a little blurring of the line on expenses. I gather referees are already under pressure in this regard because they are being questioned about whether amounts paid are expenses or otherwise. It is already happening. Back in my student days, one could say an inspector could claim such expenses are not payable free of tax because they are not wholly, necessarily and exclusively incurred in the performance of their trade, profession or vocation. This is a grey area and I would like the Minister to do something for ordinary people involved in sport. That is my main criticism of the proposal.

  I will refer to two aspects which have not been touched on so far in any great detail. I am concerned about the whole area of renewable energy and the fact that the Minister has done nothing in the Bill to promote renewable energy. This matters because it is one of the most serious issues confronting the country. We are currently involved in a tug-of-war between the Minister for Public Enterprise and the Minister for Finance where each is passing the ball to the other. The crisis which confronts us in this area is not being faced; the ball is being dropped. I am not sure whether it is understood that this is the most energy import dependent economy in Europe. We import 86% of our energy needs.

  There is a need for tax relief for individuals, similar to the BES schemes, to invest in renewable energy generation. Unless we confront this problem the situation will get worse and worse. Compliments of this Government, we are now the second highest polluter in Europe in terms of CO2 emissions per person. We are supposed to meet our Kyoto obligations for greenhouse gas emissions. We have committed ourselves to the Kyoto protocol but we are moving further and further away from the target. The other side of the coin is that we have the best green energy resources in the world. However, because of the capital cost involved in harnessing them we are not availing of that. There is a disagreement between the Departments of Public Enterprise and the Department of Finance.

  The Department of Public Enterprise talks about its schemes but, essentially, it is not paying enough for green energy. The most recent scheme was over-subscribed. None of the earlier AER [873] schemes have been put on the ground to the extent of more than 25% or 30%. In regard to the recent scheme which was over-subscribed, the Department of Public Enterprise allowed for 3.79 pence per kwh. I guarantee this will be over-subscribed and there will not be 25% of it on the ground. One needs investment and the way to get this is to encourage it from individuals in a BES type scheme. One may say there could be corporate investment but, paradoxically, the lower the rate of corporate tax the less attractive it becomes for corporate investors. As the rate of corporate tax is now down to 12.5% it becomes entirely ineffective as an investment inducement. That is the one plea I would make if we are interested in what will be one of the most difficult problems facing the country in the years ahead. There is an opportunity to amend the Act and extend tax relief to individuals on a BES type basis.

  The other point which needs to be dealt with on Committee Stage is the company share options scheme. A scheme was introduced last year which apparently dealt with the problem. The problem in regard to share option schemes is that shares acquired as a result of employee share option schemes were in the past chargeable to income tax and partly to capital gains tax. It was thought that since those shares were more in the nature of a capital receipt any profits should be chargeable to capital gains tax only. This proposal was introduced to attract people in the international markets to work here because we needed them. We needed to provide the same incentives as apply in other countries. A scheme was introduced last year but, with all due respect to the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, it was a botched one and has not worked. I tabled a question to him recently to find out the outcome of the famous scheme he introduced last year.

  Since 2001, there have been 71 applications for schemes under the 2001 Act. Only seven of them got through the Revenue Commissioners, less than 10%. Again, that issue was drawn to the attention of the Minister for Finance and, again, he ignored it. If the Minister genuinely wants to do something constructive, that is the type of issue he should tackle. With regard to both areas, will the Minister produce the necessary amendments on Committee Stage along the lines I mentioned? I would also like him to introduce amendments to cater for the ordinary person involved in sport, although I have few expectations in that regard.

  This is the last Finance Bill to be introduced by the Minister, Deputy McCreevy. He has completed his five years in office, which were highlighted by monstrous incompetence in terms of public expenditure. I am not the only one saying this and it is time that message got through. The Government and the Minister in particular have left such a legacy that it will be a relief for the country when there is a change of Government and another Minister for Finance takes over the reins of office to ensure some order in our public finances in the years ahead.

[874]   Mr. Healy: The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, has squandered the fruits of the Celtic tiger over the past five years. We have had five budgets and each in turn has discriminated against those on low pay and people who are generally poor. The Celtic tiger economy has been a huge bonanza for the wealthy. The most recent example is the special tax incentive for very wealthy sports people.

  The budgets increased the gap between the rich and poor on each occasion. Now, unfortunately, we have a much more divided society than we ever had in the past. Obviously, the Minister believes the small man or woman does not count. Unfortunately, many areas around the country do not count either unless there is a Minister in the constituency. This means in my constituency, for example, that two of our towns have been classified among the four most deprived towns in the country – Tipperary town and Carrick-on-Suir. It means the Minister has reneged on his promise in budget 2000 to decentralise Government Departments. It means that 500 jobs in an indigenous industry are at risk in the south east, mainly Clonmel, because of the huge hike in duty on cider.

  It means that the bypassing of Cashel, a town that is choked by traffic every minute of every day, is held up. It means that the major hospital project in Cashel is held up and that thousands of elderly people in our private nursing homes are denied their legal entitlement to free in-patient care in those homes. It means that 850 schools, many of them in my constituency, are awaiting improvements and extensions. Many of them have been held up continually and deliberately by the Department and the Minister.

  The Minister announced in one of his earlier budgets that decentralisation would take place. Various Fianna Fáil members, Deputies, Ministers of State and Ministers have announced decentralisation in many constituencies over the past five years. It is whispered that it is coming, but it has not arrived. It was promised for south Tipperary – it was announced in the by-election of 2000 by the then candidate, Barry O'Brien. In September 2000, the Minister of State, Deputy Davern, announced that there would be decentralisation before Christmas of that year. It was announced in the by-election of 2001 by the Fianna Fáil candidate, Councillor Michael McGuire and the Minister for Defence announced on local radio on 6 December last year that south Tipperary would benefit from decentralisation. However, it has not happened. South Tipperary is the only part of a county in Munster without decentralisation. On the basis of what was proposed in that particular budget, we would be entitled to something like 750 decentralised jobs.

  We need those jobs because, as I said, the towns of Tipperary and Carrick-on-Suir are among the four most deprived towns in the country. That was indicated in the past ten days in the report from ADM on the RAPID scheme. It was [875] also reported a number of years ago by the small area research unit in Trinity College. Tipperary has something like three times the national average of jobless. It has lost considerable numbers of jobs over the years. It has no advance factory or decentralisation. Only 6% of students who finish their education in Tipperary town stay in Tipperary or return there to live; some 94% emigrate and never come back.

  My next point would be funny if it was not so sad. There is a new Fianna Fáil candidate in Tipperary, Dr. Martin Mansergh, who has apparently espoused decentralisation and advance factories for Tipperary town. Dr. Mansergh is the same Dr. Mansergh who is currently an adviser to the Taoiseach and was previously an adviser to former Taoisigh, Deputy Albert Reynolds, and Charles Haughey. He was associated with the Fianna Fáil Government which closed St. Vincent's Hospital in Tipperary town. I do not believe we will get very much from him either.

  Carrick-on-Suir is among the four most deprived towns in Ireland. Again, it has not benefited from decentralisation or an advance factory. In October 2001, the members of Carrick-on-Suir Urban District Council met the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, to discuss job creation. They did not even get an indication that there would be any support for further job creation in Carrick-on-Suir. In a period when there is supposed to be a Celtic tiger economy, the jobless figures in Carrick-on-Suir have increased from 867 people in January 2001 to 970 people in January 2002, an increase of 103 people or 11% in a town of 5,500 people. That is the extent of the neglect and the abandonment of that town by the Government. Will the Minister put his money where his mouth is, amend this Bill and include decentralisation for south Tipperary, as he promised he would do a number of budgets ago? He could also designate areas in south Tipperary for special incentives for industrial development, something that was done in other areas a number of budgets ago as well.

  Another question that arose after the last budget and regarding the Finance Bill concerns the sabotage – that is the only word I can use – of jobs in the cider industry in south Tipperary, mainly in Clonmel. This is an indigenous industry going back to the 1930s in Clonmel. It has invested about £40 million in expansion in recent years and significant numbers of local farmers are growing apples for it. Unfortunately, the huge increase in the duty on cider announced in the budget in December has put 500 jobs at risk in that very labour-intensive industry.

  The duty on cider is now completely out of line with that in most other European countries that recognise it is a very labour intensive industry and, therefore, have either low duty or no duty. The company in question had proposed to have a flotation this year, but has now lost its good news story and its employees may well lose the [876] deal they had negotiated under the employee share option scheme. If the Minister had any heart, he would withdraw the huge increase he imposed. If this increase had to happen, the company would have been prepared to accept it over a number of years. However, that is not the case. I appeal to the Minister at the eleventh hour to withdraw the huge duty increase on cider.

  The Bill contains something that on first sight appears to be a welcome provision to allow the cost of private nursing home care for elderly people to be a tax deductible expense. However, elderly people are already legally entitled to free in-patient care in private nursing homes. There have been two reports from the Ombudsman, one late last year and the other in January 2001. In that report the Ombudsman said:

    The legal position in relation to hospital in-patient services both in 1990 and at present was and is relatively straightforward. Everybody resident in the State is eligible to be provided with in-patient services, where necessary, by the relevant health board. The service may be provided directly by the health board in one of its own hospitals, or in another publicly funded hospital, or by way of a contracting out arrangement between the health board and a private institution.

The introduction of tax deductible fees appears to be the start of the road to eliminating the legal entitlement of elderly people to free nursing home care. Very many elderly people or their children will need to find at least £150 per week for the cheapest nursing homes. Worse still, those elderly people are being pressurised to sell their homes to fund nursing home care because the health boards are deducting from their subventions a notional rental income. That is absolutely disgraceful. These are people who have given years to the State and now find that at the end of their days their children must pay for them in private nursing homes and are under pressure to sell their homes to fund it because of the health boards and the regulations governed by the Department of Health and Children regarding a notional rental income. The law relating to this must be implemented. I fear that this section of the Bill is the slippery slope and the Government intends to withdraw the legal entitlement of elderly people to free nursing home care rather than doing what the Ombudsman recommended.

  What effect have the Minister's various budgets had on our schools? Some 850 projects around the country are being held up, some of them for years. In my constituency the following are affected: Mullinahone, Ballyclerihan, Gealscoil Chluain Meala, Newcastle, Mount Bruis, Ballytarsna, Annacarty and there are more. They are all held up because the Minister for Education and Science has refused to allow them to move on to the next stage of their projects.

  Dr. Moffatt: That is not true.

[877]   Mr. Healy: It is. The Minister has refused to allow his own consultancy advisory committee to meet since last April. Our children and their parents and teachers deserve better than this.

  Mr. Connaughton: I wish to share ten minutes of my time with Deputy Crawford.

  I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Finance Bill, 2002. Earlier, I listened to the Minister for Finance who went to great lengths to praise himself and the Government for all the great things they had done in the past five years. Because of the strength of the economy it is true that things were done in the past four or five years that could not even have been dreamt of in any other period of our history. However, the acid test at the next general election for the Government is whether the people believe the resources available were properly handled.

  What happened our economy was like what could happen in any ordinary family. Out of the blue four or five years ago a family in receipt of £200 in old money suddenly managed to get its income up to £1,000 per week. People not used to having this amount of money could do many things. That did not necessarily mean it was always put to the best use. There has been considerable mishandling of money by the Government in the past five years. I will outline some of the things that will not only come back to haunt Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, but will also cause significant problems for many in the next three or four years.

  The national development plan was to be the be all of everything. All the so-called planning strategists were involved. Everybody who could be called a consultant was involved and did well out of it financially. It was a boom time to be a consultant or an adviser. Some of the advice given by them and taken by the Government will prove to be foolhardy. There were grandiose plans for roads. Nobody would deny that we should have a great road infrastructure, but the deadline of 2006 for the end of the programme will not be met. I believe it will be 2010 or 2012. There will be a huge slow-down on two aspects of the projects. First, the plan does not reflect the costs which are escalating. Something that cost £300 million last year will certainly cost £400 million next year; it may be the cost even now. Second, now that the economy is beginning to slow down, the type of money that was supposed to be available to meet the targets set will be stretched. Many of the roads that were to be built in various parts of the country will not be built for a long time.

  I said during the budget debate that there was a sleight of hand in that the way the budget was balanced left much to be desired. There was much more pressure on the Exchequer at that time than the Minister said there was. Every Deputy on this side of the House who spoke in this debate was able to rattle off a list of major investments proposed for his or her constituencies that have not been touched in the five years [878] the Government has been in office and I will list more of them.

  Mr. Byrne: The Deputy forgot to mention the investments which were made, which number far more than those made in previous years.

  Mr. Connaughton: As many proposed investments proceeded in the five years prior to the Government coming to office as did during the past five years.

  It is impossible to believe there are 850 schools in a terrible condition, a fact which has been independently verified by the INTO. The school in Cahergal outside Tuam is bursting at the seams with students, but they are not able to use the new technology in the classrooms because there is no room for it. Not alone are they not able to find out whether they can plan for a new school, but they have been unable to discuss their position with the Minister, Deputy Woods, because he refuses to meet them. If he had good news for them, I am sure he would meet them. The idea is to defer the project until May. That is what is happening. The Minister of State must know that as well as I do.

  Mr. Byrne: Twice as much money was spent in Wexford in the past five years as in the previous five years.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Allow Deputy Connaughton to proceed without interruption.

  Mr. Connaughton: I do not mind if the Minister of State wants to shout across the floor.

  Mr. Byrne: I am only trying to help the Deputy.

  Mr. Connaughton: I have many more points to make and I am only sorry the Minister, Deputy Woods, is not present.

  Mr. Byrne: I am representing him.

  Mr. Connaughton: I could rattle off schools in Briarfield, Cappataggle, Barnaderg and many more. Their boards of management, teachers and parents are asking why, if money was so flaithiúlach in the past five years, they did not get a taste of it. The response to every parliamentary question I tabled to the Minister on this matter is that the process is at a particular stage and the matter is being examined. Having regard to all the meetings of the boards of management currently taking place, the Government has a good deal of answering to do on this matter. Where did the money allocated for these projects go? Where did the money allocated for the roads go? We are being told that this work will be done, but it has not been done.

  One of the hallmarks of any society is its ability in good and bad times to look after the least well-off in the community. That has always been the case, including during the 1970s, the 1980s and 1990s.

[879]   Mr. Byrne: An old age pension couple now get £200 per week.

  Mr. Connaughton: There has been a reasonable increase in that benefit. That is not the point I am about to make. Anyone who has spent 66 years of his or her life working for this country is entitled to that benefit; it is his or her right.

  Mr. Byrne: Agreed.

  Mr. Connaughton: The Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs has been on television and radio every day since Christmas blowing his trumpet. All Fianna Fáil is doing is psyching up the elderly population to believe it is the only party that ever looked after them.

  Mr. Byrne: The Deputy's party only gave them an increase of £1.39 when it was in government.

  Mr. Connaughton: It appears that one arm of Government does not know what the other is doing. Eligibility for the medical card was removed from some of the elderly because the Government was not able to properly match that entitlement with other benefits.

  I want to deal with some of the serious matters that are wrong in our society.

  Mr. Byrne: The Deputy should not forget the £1.39 increase his party gave to the elderly.

  Mr. Connaughton: It is usually a woman who gives up her job to look after an elderly person. Irrespective of income, it is unacceptable for some carers to be told on foot of the assessment of their application for the carer's allowance that they do not qualify, given that they provide care 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. If the person being cared for were admitted to one of the health board's geriatric hospitals, it would cost £700 per week to keep him or her. The Government could not see fit to give any help to such carers. If the Government has so much money to talk about that the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs is on television ten times every day telling us about it, why does someone in his Department not do something to provide for carers? It is disastrous in this day and age that carers have to do that work every day of their lives. This does not have anything to do with money; it has to do with the care of the elderly, 24 hours a day.

  I would like to see the flag Fianna Fáil would fly for its provision for the mentally handicapped. I would be the first to admit that down through the years, irrespective of which party was in government, sufficient money was not committed to that group. One would imagine in good times that a substantial increase would be given to these people, particularly in respect of respite care. The work of many parents of children with special needs is similar in some respects to that of those who care for the elderly. Who else would do this work which parents and carers do not mind [880] doing. To get one, two or three nights of respite care, parents of children with special needs in Ballinasloe must go on a list for two or three months. That is how bad the service is. In a country bursting at the seams with money, until recently at least, why should that have been allowed to happen?

  The Minister for Finance was bound to pull a rabbit out of the hat before the year was over. Under section 12, the Minister decided that because of the entertainment and enjoyment sports men and women have given thousands of our people throughout their sporting lives, they should be entitled to a tax deduction. There is nothing wrong with that. Nobody is more involved in sport than the Minister of State present. GAA players have played their hearts out day in and day out for years, but very few of them have won an all-Ireland and most of them have not got to play in Croke Park. They will view this measure as a creation of a division in sport. The Minister will be interpreted as saying to some sports people that they are good because he likes what they do and, therefore, he will give them a tax deduction while he tells others that what they do is not important. Many GAA clubs in rural Ireland will ask why they were not included. What is proposed in that section is very divisive and I am surprised that the Minister was not able to strike a balance. Irrespective of what discipline an athlete is in, he or she must be single-minded, devote a great deal of time to training and do without many of the things young people want. Such single-mindedness is not confined to one type of sport. The people who participate in an all-Ireland final spend a lifetime in training and are dedicated and disciplined because that is the way sport has gone. The Minister has, however, decided they are lesser beings than other sports people. There will be a great deal of talk about this measure before the election is held.

  If what I hear about this is correct, the original proposals to fund village renewal schemes are either being diminished or abolished because the proposals are considered anti-competitive by the EU.

  One of the schemes introduced by this Government, which I considered to be extremely useful, was the rural renewal scheme in the Shannon basin. That scheme helped many eligible towns. It was introduced on a pilot basis some years ago and everybody now understands the advantages and disadvantages. The evaluations have been carried out. Why did other towns in the west or other places that are deemed to be remote not get a chance to participate? That is a huge issue with many town development associations and chambers of commerce. No town in County Galway benefited even though part of north Galway is losing more of its population than any other place in the west according to the last census. Why did that area not benefit? If the scheme has been so successful why did the Government, [881] given all the money available to it, not extend it in the budget? There was no talk about that.

  No party made as much effort to secure special status for the BMW region as Fine Gael. I spent years arguing the case for it. It eventually secured that status and the Government made a great fuss about having delivered it. However, it attached a footnote, which is the important aspect. Laudable as the scheme was, the Government decided that 50% of all foreign direct investment coming through the IDA would come to the BMW region. Sadly, I was gullible enough to believe that would happen. Not only did it not happen but it will not happen. The independent commission for the west, established a few years ago by the House following six months of debate, produced a damning report a couple of months ago. It stated that the gap between the regions in the country was widening rather than narrowing. That is nothing to what will happen as a result of the job losses on the east coast, losses that are happening as we speak. Members can rest assured that the first IDA backed industries this Government will have anything to do with will be put on the east coast. That is where the huge numbers of people live.

  Mr. Byrne: The spatial strategy will accommodate that.

  Mr. Connaughton: The Deputy need not talk to me about the spatial strategy. The Government has been looking at it for years. It claims to be in favour of spatial strategy but it will tell nobody where it is. It could be anywhere. I assume the Government will tell the people on 10 May; they certainly will not be told before the election. The Government has no spatial strategy and never had one.

  Mr. Byrne: We will be back in Government by then. The election is on 2 May.

  Mr. Connaughton: The Government could not nail its colours to the mast.

  I applaud the Minister for providing a tax relief on milk quota purchased after 1 April 2000. It is a reasonable encouragement for people buying milk quota, particularly since they are generally the progressive and young farmers. However, there is one glaring omission. If that can be done for dairy farmers, why not for the people doing their best in the suckler cow and weanling sector? They get no help if they have to buy a suckler cow quota. I cannot understand why people who buy a milk quota should get a tax concession while people who buy a sucker cow quota cannot.

  The suckler cow quota has increased from approximately £300 last year to approximately £550 this year. The soaring price means that most of the young farmers I encounter every day cannot afford it. There has also been a tax deduction available for many years on farm buildings. Why can that not be extended to suckler cow producers? There is no reason for not doing it. From [882] an administrative point of view there is no problem – everybody knows who has quota, who is selling it, who will get it and who is entitled to it. Against that background, this is a major omission in the Bill.

  I mentioned medical cards earlier. I agree with the decision to give medical cards to people over 70 years of age. Anybody who has given that length of service to the State deserves what is going and I will not argue with that decision. It should have been done long ago. However, it is difficult to equate that with nothing being done for young mothers with children under five or six years of age who are visiting the doctor regularly. Not a day passes but I see these mothers going to the doctor. If they or their husbands or partners are working, they do not qualify for a medical card. A simple visit to the doctor costs €35. After visiting the chemist, one is lucky to come out of it at €50 euro. In old money, the combined cost is approximately £50. I am not exaggerating the figures; that is the usual cost. What about the family with three or four children? The families I have in mind do not, thankfully, have severe illnesses. They are just the little complaints children regularly contract but parents have no alternative but to bring them to the doctor.

  There are huge injustices in this Finance Bill. When the Government Deputies start knocking on the doors next May, many people will ask them why they did not do a better job with the resources when they had them.

  Mr. Byrne: The Deputy better start knocking on the doors before May.

  Mr. Crawford: I thank Deputy Connaughton for sharing his time with me. Members would have liked to speak on the Bill for 30 minutes but that is not possible due to the guillotine.

  This Finance Bill offers little hope to the many groups of people who have been dealt a severe blow by five years of the best economic growth this country has experienced. I wish to make a number of comments on agriculture. I welcome the tax relief for those affected by animal disease. However, there is an anomaly. Many people could not buy cattle last spring because of foot and mouth disease. Although there was no disease on their farms, they will pay tax on destocking. The destocking was not meant to happen because the stock was due to be replaced. In other words, people sold cattle before the foot and mouth crisis arose and intended to replace the cattle in the early spring, within the tax year, but could not do it. That group should be looked after in this Finance Bill.

  Like Deputy Connaughton, I welcome the tax relief for milk quota. Many farmers were forced out of the milk sector and into the suckler cow sector. Many had to buy quotas at extremely high prices and tax relief should be equally available to them. The other issue affecting farmers and all small industries, especially those with low profits, is [883] insurance charges. I received a telephone call from a small business operator today who told me his insurance costs had increased threefold. There is nothing in the Finance Bill to alleviate that problem. Small business operators will be forced out of business if the insurance situation cannot be rectified. The Government must set up structures to ensure people will remain in employment. It is easier to do that than to put them on social welfare. For the first time in the past four and a half years, I agree with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste.

  In the Dáil yesterday, the Taoiseach condemned the Opposition for raising issues relating to abortion. I agree when he said there were many other important issues needing to be dealt with. I think of health, housing, education, agriculture and others that he has failed to deal with while in Government. The Tánaiste correctly said in her address to her national conference that things had improved over the past four and a half years but that we still had a Third World infrastructure. We have only fours years of European funding left and it is an extremely serious admission that, after almost five years in Government, she is handing over a Third World infrastructure. That is very clear in Cavan and Monaghan, where nothing has happened on the M2, which leads from Dublin to Derry, the country's fourth largest city. There is nothing being done on the east-west roads either, such as that from Dundalk to Sligo. Neither that road nor the Galway to Belfast road is even in the national development plan. That is some peace dividend.

  I remember being in the House the night the IRA ceasefire was announced. I welcomed it and approached the then Taoiseach, Deputy Albert Reynolds, to ask that he reopen the Border roads. He pledged £430,000, which does not seem much now but was significant then. Since then, even when my own party was in Government, not much has been done to deliver a peace dividend despite the Good Friday Agreement. The only major cross-Border body to be established was located absurdly in Cork. Was that because it is easier to fly there than to travel by car in the Border area?

  We have no gas supply nor broadband communications in Monaghan. If we are to improve the Border area, which suffered so much for more than 30 years, we must get commitment. I am delighted an industry was found for Carrickmacross and congratulate the IDA, local politicians, and the Jones family who will create more than 100 jobs there with American backing. However, in Monaghan town, we lost Patten's Mill, Monaghan Poultry Products, St. Patrick's College and a swimming pool. I hope Deputy McDaid, the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, is there today to announce funding for the pool. If not, there are questions to be answered.

  Many things in the north Monaghan area do not do credit to the Government. Deputy Ó Cao[884] láin previously claimed at various breakfast meetings in America that, when elected, he would solve all the problems. What has he solved? Not only have the national roads suffered, but, while funds have increased for regional and county roads, the dramatic cost increases mean that in the Clones electoral district, for example, there will be only 12 roads restructured this year, compared to 20 in 1996. There should be more money and a genuine increase in funding for local improvement schemes in this region.

  I could, if I had time, discuss the educational problems. We have no third level institution in County Monaghan. There should be cross-Border co-operation and we should have bought St. Patrick's. Likewise the health issue is one that I could speak on, as I have done many times before. The problems at Monaghan General Hospital are well known at local and national level. Housing is another issue I could discuss.

  However, I will return to the swimming pool which is relevant to this Bill. Many are delighted with the Minister's surprise announcement regarding sports people's tax relief. That affects a small number and makes it hard for me to tell people living in urban housing schemes and rural areas that the Minister for Finance could find €5 million, by his own estimation, for sports people but no funds to provide a swimming pool in Monaghan.

  We must stick to the facts. The so-called Bertie bowl was a disaster. We were accused at the time of being spoilsports but independent study now shows that what was planned could not be justified. What can be justified is that the people of Monaghan town have a swimming pool. Extremely talented youngsters there must pay to go to Northern Ireland or Cavan to train for swimming.

  I congratulate the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance for recognising in the dying days of this Government that the low paid need tax breaks. Deputy Noonan, when our spokesman on finance, was laughed at three years ago when he said that the money could be spread more evenly. Now the Government admits that the low paid deserve a tax break. Yet it will sound hollow when it goes to the country as the last time it gave to those at the top. The people at the bottom will remember this.

  Mr. Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny): I wish to share my time with Deputy Ulick Burke. Tá súil agam nach mbeidh brón ar an Leas-Cheann Comhairle, nuair a chloisfidh sé gur seo an uair dheireanach a bheidh mise ag caint faoin gcáin fhaisnéis. B'fhéidir gur cúis áthais é sin do dhaoine ach is dócha go bhfuil daoine eile ag smaoineamh nach mbeidh mo leithéid ann arís agus gur cúis bhróin é sin. I hope the Minister's embarrassment will not be too great by the time I have finished.

  The newest idea in this Bill, to refund people in sport, is the most daft ever thought of. I spent much of my time in a voluntary capacity, and appreciated the contribution and work of so [885] many people, in amateur sports such as Gaelic football, hurling and athletics. It is an outrageous insult to them that certain high-powered people are being picked out. This shows the same attitude which decided the “Bertie bowl” would be built for top class athletes to use on the few occasions during the year one might get a reasonable crowd. The same attitude holds that those at the grass roots who give the service do not matter any more. The Government is caught up in this dangerous philosophy – Deputy Michael D. Higgins said the same today about the Government's attitude.

  A Government should have some philosophy but this Government's philosophy seems to be that those who are at the top or important are to be looked after while the others are ignored. Amateurs who play alongside professionals must feel very inferior. The Minister for Finance came up with the idea that if the GAA went professional it would get the same benefits. Anyone in touch with reality or who knows about the expense of running hurling and football clubs – hurling in particular – is aware that if one had professional players there would not be a hope in hell of keeping any club going. Money must come from somewhere, even if it is just to replace broken hurleys, which is a liability for many clubs. I fail to see any value in this provision.

  Many teachers and others spend evening after evening packing their cars with young lads, giving them an opportunity to develop their talents.

  Mr. Byrne: For the love of the game.

  Mr. Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny): I am delighted the Minister of State accepts that. It is a pity he cannot speak to the Minister for Finance about it.

  Mr. U. Burke: And the Minister for Education and Science.

  Mr. Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny): I will get to that in a minute.

  I can speak with a little authority and modesty on this. I was able to afford the luxury of a Morris Minor Deluxe – it was a deluxe model because one had the option of getting one with a heater or without and for all kinds of reasons at that time in my life I thought a heater would be important. I packed that car with young lads and brought them all over the place for football, hurling and athletics. I received a Setanta award for outstanding work with the youth of Carlow and I am delighted that award is still being given out as it means people are still doing the same work at that level with young people. Many teachers find that people who were not at the top academically might be talented at sport and that should be encouraged.

  I told the Minister for Education and Science last year that he would rue the day he docked teachers for not doing voluntary work and now the chickens have come home to roost. We now [886] have a situation where he is offering them money to do work that was done voluntarily in the past and they are turning it down. If the Government fails to see the importance of volunteers in the country then we are going down a slippery slope and we will never recover. One cannot pay people to do work that has been done by voluntary workers over the years. That is true of all aspects of life.

  The philosophy of the Government is to ignore all that. The Minister for Education and Science blew the whole thing out of the water for teachers in a moment of madness. I say that not because I was a teacher but because teachers do much voluntary work that is beyond the call of duty and which is not appreciated. The Minister in charge of them does not appreciate that and does not understand that one cannot dock people money for not doing voluntary work as they are not paid for it.

  This is similar to the provision for sportspeople. One is ignoring the amateurs. Look at what the GAA has done for this country, keeping it sane in times of crisis. People's parish and county loyalties helped them to get over unemployment, financial strain and emigration. It kept them going and that was thanks to people who gained nothing from it except the pleasure of helping others.

  Mr. Byrne: And they did not want anything for it.

  Mr. Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny): They did not want anything. They never asked for anything but that does not allow them to be belittled, which is happening at present. Amateurs do not count now. It is fine for a hurler to get a belt on the hand on Sunday and have to go to work on Monday. He carries on earning his living and paying tax while the professional footballer can relax on Monday morning and have a physiotherapist ease the pains in his limbs. The amateur does not want pay but does not want to be insulted either and that is what is happening. The contribution of amateurs has been belittled beyond belief at this stage; I cannot get over it. I do not know who came up with this idea: I said it was daft at the beginning and it still is. It is insulting to every voluntary organisation and amateur in sport. For example, a jockey can get this refund. What about the horse trainer and the stable lads who produce the horse for the jockey to win races? How do they feel? What about a hurler or footballer who employs people and who must go to work on Monday even if he is injured? Business must go on but there is no recognition for him.

  Mr. Byrne: What is the Deputy's proposal?

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Deputy Brown without interruption.

  Mr. Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny): My proposal is that it is time the Government packed up and [887] went because it has lost the run of itself. This week and last week show the Government does not know where it is going.

  Mr. Byrne: The polls would suggest otherwise.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Deputy Brown without interruption.

  Mr. Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny): The polls will come in a few months. You will find that the polls are different at grass roots.

  Mr. Byrne: The Deputy is stung.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minister of State should allow Deputy Browne to continue. Deputy Browne, if you addressed your remarks to the Chair you might not provoke interruptions from the Minister of State.

  Mr. Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny): I will speak to the Chair. I thought the Minister of State was here to take note of what I was saying, not to interrupt me. I must be saying something he does not like.

  Mr. Byrne: I have not had occasion to take notes.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Allow Deputy Browne to continue. There is limited time for the debate.

  Mr. Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny): The Government knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, as the old cliché has it.

  Compare this tax measure with the Eircom shares situation. We came up with the proposal that Eircom shareholders, who were conned into buying shares by £74 million worth of propaganda, should be given the same facility as those who can afford to buy several shares and write their tax off against losses. The wonderful PR machine of the Government, which is costing us a small fortune, was able to belittle this scheme and say it was outrageous that the ordinary taxpayer should pay this. All we asked for was a level playing field. Some Oireachtas Members who are financial journalists know this scheme exists and have used it and have never objected to it. Why should ordinary shareholders not avail of the tax credit for his or her losses? Why is it reserved for the rich? Is it the “Bertie bowl” or professional syndrome again? The wealthy are fine but the ordinary poor devil who lost money cannot write it off against tax because it would be dreadful to impose a tax on non-shareholders. However, the ordinary taxpayer can support the sports people.

  Mr. Byrne: Will the Deputy bail out anyone who gets into trouble? Thank God they will not be over here.

[888]   Mr. Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny): We are looking for a just society, where the same rules apply to the rich man as to the poor man. If one can afford to buy successful shares and Eircom shares one can write off one's losses against tax. That is the law as it stands. All we are saying is that the poor investors who were conned and inveigled into buying Eircom shares should be able to use the same mechanism if they made a loss and write it off against their taxes. The Exchequer loses in both cases. There is no justification for the outcry – the phone calls to local radio and newspapers is all propaganda. I have made several attempts to contradict the repeated propaganda but it cannot be done. One newspaper editor nearly had a fit because I suggested, tongue in cheek, that his journalist should carry a health warning because of his political views. He thought it was outrageous. It is amazing how sensitive journalists are. We are sitting ducks for them, but they can say what they like and they will not give us the right of reply. There was a time when we had a right of reply. However, the edition of The Sunday Independent two Sundays ago proves how difficult it is to get anything published. I have tried and failed to do so.

  Mr. Byrne: We often blame the media too.

  Mr. Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny): We blame the media for their view of our efforts to help the widows of taxi drivers who are in serious financial difficulties.

  Mr. Byrne: It was a stupid idea to bail them out.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minister of State should allow Deputy Browne to continue without interruption.

  Mr. Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny): I hope the ears of the Minister of State work better than his mouth because I want to tell him something. These people were in serious difficulties. Some widows faced the danger of losing their houses. In a newspaper article last week a journalist wrote an article in which he said the election gimmick by Deputy Jim Mitchell was outrageous. However, he then decided to write approximately 250 words about the efforts of the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Molloy, to help taxi people. A propaganda war is being waged by spin doctors and people who have left RTE and journalism to join the Fianna Fáil press office. It is writing statements for Deputies around the country. One reads the same statement in each constituency. The propaganda war is difficult to combat, particularly when one does not get the right of reply. If it is an election gimmick for Fine Gael to propose help for widows of taxi drivers, it is also an election gimmick for the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, to introduce help for taxi drivers. People should realise what is happening.

[889]   I am tired listening to the Government claiming credit for lowering taxes, increasing employment, etc. The Government was the luckiest one since the State was founded because it is the only Government which came into power with a rising economic tide.

  Mr. Byrne: We made our own luck. We did the business in 1987.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minister of State should allow Deputy Browne to continue without interruption.

  Mr. Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny): I do not want to reveal the Minister of State's age, but what did he think of 1977?

  Mr. Byrne: I am talking about 1987. Does the Deputy want to speak about the period from 1982 to 1987 when the national debt doubled?

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Deputy Browne, without interruption.

  Mr. Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny): The disaster started in 1977. The Government was handed a surplus budget in 1997 and there has been a budget surplus since then. I will talk about next year later. If Curly Wee had been Taoiseach and Gussie Goose had been Tánaiste for the past five years, they would not have done a worse job than the Government.

  Mr. Byrne: Thank God they are on that side and that is where they will stay.

  Mr. Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny): How could the Government go wrong when the economy was doing as well as it was for the past five years? The Government claimed credit for reducing tax and the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs talked about increasing social welfare payments. What else could it have done with a budget surplus? If some Ministers had to cut spending by 10% on the previous year, they would drown in the middle of the Sahara. It is good for the Government if it is in office at the right time. Perhaps after the election when we or those who succeed me move over to that side of the House—

  Mr. Byrne: If the Deputy believed that would happen, he would not retire.

  Mr. Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny): Unlike others, I know that when I am almost 66 years of age the country can be run without me. Some people on the Government side should realise that. I wish the Minister of State the best of luck. I hope he lives to be 100 years of age and that he will still be here when Oisín leaves the Fianna behind him.

  As regards lump sum payments, people have been waiting almost 12 months for the pre-1953 payments and for appeals. The Government should deal with the delays in the system rather [890] than trying to play politics. Work on schools is being held up, yet replies to parliamentary questions to the Minister for Education and Science state there are not any delays. What has gone wrong in the Government that every school is being told to wait? Schools which accepted tenders are facing delays, yet the Minister has said that work is not being held up.

  When the Minister for Finance wanted to balance the budget, he decided to raid the jam jars. Unfortunately for the incoming Government, three of the jam jars were emptied this year and there is nothing left for next year. We will probably face more problems in the future. The medical cards issue and the fact that widows under 66 years of age are paid less than widows over 66 years of age are scandals. The people on disability payments should get the money which professional sportsmen are receiving. One could do a great deal for them with €5 million.

  Mr. U. Burke: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the Finance Bill in the absence of the Minister for Finance. It is an opportunity for every Deputy and the public to assess the work and the failures of the Government over the past five years. The Government's record is one of dismal failure at a time of great financial resources.

  As regards education, the Minister for Education and Science has failed. His attempt to face down the teachers when he came to office, last year and in recent days indicates that he is determined to break the morale not only of the teaching profession but of the students and parents. No other Minister for Education in the history of the State has done as much damage as the Minister, Deputy Woods. However, he is not satisfied with what he has done to date as he is now determined to continue along that road. It is pathetic to think that his one ambition, as stated during the week, is to face down the teachers. He is using bully tactics. He will regret adopting that approach. I hope future generations not only regret his actions but remember them.

  Today's newspapers report that there is a strong possibility the Government will reintroduce third level fees. It is thinking of doing that at a time when the maintenance grant for third level students is totally inadequate. Anyone with a child going to third level college or who knows a third level student realises they are living in abject poverty. A maintenance grant of £1,800 for a student in 2002 is totally inadequate. The criteria for qualification for that paltry £1,800 are out of kilter with reality. There is an urgent need for the Minister for Finance to tell the Minister for Education and Science that the finance is available to give students that to which they are entitled to maintain a reasonable standard of living. Parents in reasonably low paid jobs, such as fast food outlets, should not be disqualified. They should be able to go outside the limits laid down for third level maintenance grants. The Government continues to claim that it will bring more people from disadvantaged areas into the edu[891] cation system at third level. However, it cannot keep them at second level, let alone introduce them to and maintain them at third level. That indicates the failure of the Minister for Education and Science.

  Deputies ask questions day after day about primary and post-primary schools which have failed under the Government for the past five years not only to get resources to do the much needed extensions and repairs but to get a response from the Minister. He has stifled all information to frustrated boards of management and parents' associations throughout the country. They ask Deputies on all sides of the House to ask the Minister what stage their school is at. While 840 national schools throughout the country are in need of repair and extension how can this Minister say he has made progress? There is no need to go into the details of what this Government did in the Jamie Sinnott case, and the Department is continuing to challenge the courts' decision with regard to the recognition of its responsibilities to people with learning difficulties, particularly in regard to autism. While we have that attitude from the Minister and the Department he has to be classified as a failure.

  Why does the Minister of State at the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Byrne, who has responsibility for Coillte, not get premia parallel to what Teagasc is getting for animals and cereal premia? Somebody in Government has to answer why there is such a difference between these two State bodies.

  Will the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Cullen, tell me why a pilot scheme of tax concessions that has been very worthwhile in the upper Shannon region, brought in by the Minister for Finance some years ago, has not been extended to the middle and lower Shannon basin? Towns like Ballinasloe and Loughrea in my constituency of East Galway adjoining the Shannon have not had one job created or assisted by the IDA or Enterprise Ireland, not just during the term of this Government but over the past 20 years. The IDA has failed to adhere to the guidelines issued to them that all of the jobs are not to be directed to the cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. In Ballinasloe there is an advance factory ready and there is nobody likely to occupy it in the near future. We are told that the Taoiseach is to announce 1,000 new jobs in County Galway in the near future. People are waiting to hear if they will be in Loughrea, Ballinasloe or Galway. Going on the past record it is likely to be Galway because there is no determination on the part of the responsible Minister to say to the IDA to put those jobs where they are needed.

  The Government reluctantly accepted that we be categorised within the BMW region. We have been in it for the past five years, yet what benefit has it brought to us in the west? We have not received the higher grants and greater incentives for job creation we were supposed to get. Great [892] advances have taken place in the Border counties and some jobs have been created in that region. This has happened because the shame of this cross-Border poverty could not be tolerated. Will the Minster review the pilot scheme and extend it to the middle Shannon area and put us on a level playing field with other areas that have these incentives?

  It is becoming more apparent each day that the NDP totally underestimated the funding required for the listed projects. Already we have a proposed extension of time with regard to roads and infrastructure, particularly in the west, the area with which I am most familiar. There have been difficulties in regard to getting access to the land due to foot and mouth disease. That delay is understandable but if we eliminate that, little has happened in the meantime. We are still far behind the timescale outlined for the various planning stages at the NDP launch. The Taoiseach came to my constituency before Christmas and said that an intrinsic part of the NDP, the replacement of the N6 and the Loughrea bypass, would start in 2002 and be operational by 2003. He said that at a time when he knew well that there was no funding. The NRA has since stated that depending on availability of land and planning requirements it could be advanced as a stand-alone project. Who is fooling who? How long can this Government continue to fool the people in instances like that? It is not just a single case of a broken promise: there is a whole raft of examples that I could refer to if I had the time.

  I brought a deputation from a swimming pool committee in Loughrea to Dublin and it was told that £3 million was available and that if it got its plans together there would not be a problem. The reality is that the plans have been done and there is no money forthcoming. Who has to take responsibility for this glib misinformation? We know that the promises are still being made and that the Ministers will find resources for their own constituencies.

  Mr. Penrose: I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution on the Finance Bill, 2002. I will focus on glaring mismanagement by an ideologically driven Government. It can be amply demonstrated that there have been abject failures.

  One of the matters I have looked at over the last number of years has been individualisation. A householder whose salary is equivalent to the combined salaries of his neighbours in the household next door and who has the same mortgage and family commitments as them, will see a significant difference in his or her salary at the end of the week. The single income family is compelled to pay substantially more tax because the earner's spouse does not work outside the home. That is a repugnant provision of the tax code and it creates tremendous inequalities and anomalies.

  It was brought in to achieve the economic objective of compelling people to work outside the home, but it fails to recognise the deeply [893] rooted inequality it creates in the tax system. The provision was driven by an ideological Minister for Finance. That is fine as a Government prerogative. The Minister can argue logically why the provision should be made and we can disagree with him. However, it worries me that the concept of individualisation is not applied across the board and that is something the Minister will find in his constituency.

  When an application for social welfare is made by a young person aged 19 years, who is unfortunately unemployed, the first thing that is done is a means test. Such tests have been there from the year dot and it is no use heaping political blame for that on anybody. I do not do that here; I try to argue logically. The young person is means tested based on his or her family's household income, a concept which is so far removed from the individual that, some day, somebody will go to the High Court and win a case against the State. That person will be able to argue, by analogy, that the principle that applies in the taxation code is the antithesis of what applies in the social welfare code. It is the antithesis of the principle of individualisation strongly advocated by the Minister for Finance, ably assisted by the Progressive Democrats element in Government.

  Individualisation gets rid of community and social solidarity principles and promotes the individual. The Minister of State may take a different view, but that is the essence of Thatcherism and it contributed to the fall of Thatcherism. This principle should be scrutinised. If it is such a good idea and if it is so fundamental to Government philosophy and policy, it should be applied across the board. People should be treated as individuals in the social welfare code. In fairness to the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, he understands the issue with regard to the qualifying adult dependant, as does the Minister of State at the Department of Finance who is an intelligent person. It will cost money, but I do not believe in dropping the higher tax bands. We will have to fund this and we cannot resort to borrowing to pay for it. We should forget about lowering tax for people such as me from 42% to 40% and instead bring those people up. We should apply the principle to the less well off and help them out.

  There should be individualisation in the case of higher education grants. If one is under 23 years, one is means tested. One has the democratic right to vote at the age of 18 and one could be married with a family at the age of 21, yet for the higher education grant and third level allowance, one has to submit one's parents' details even if one lives away from the family home. The whole thing is a farce. To bring equity to the system, the ideology, against which I would argue, should apply completely. It is fair enough that there is a fundamental Government philosophy which I do not share; that is what democracy is all about. It is admirable that people have different views and express them strongly, but principles must apply across the board. It is good to have sharp ideo[894] logical divisions in here because sometimes it becomes bland with everyone clapping each other on the back. That is not good for any of us.

  On sitting days, permission is granted to debate matters on the Adjournment, the focus of which are often schools and the infrastructural capital to develop them. The Minister never comes in and instead sends Ministers of State, such as the Minister of State, Deputy Cullen. They are very capable people, but the Minister is not here to answer the questions we raise. Schools such as Castlepollard community college and Coláiste Cionn Torc, which my colleague Deputy McGrath mentioned yesterday, are still waiting for investment. It is unbelievable and I am sure the Minister of State is frustrated too. Is there not enough money? Can we not come out and say that there are 800 schools on waiting lists and that the capital cannot be provided? There are no miracles, but let us get the matter out in the open. If a school will not be ready until 2005, it is no good saying that it will be ready in 2003. Boards of management, parents' councils, teachers and pupils at schools such as Coláiste Mhuire, Mullingar, and St. Mary's CBS, are aggravated and agitated in relation to matters they feel should be attended to straight away.

  Often people feel that projects are being put on the long finger. A new school has been promised since 1997 for Coralstown on the N4, which many thought would be delivered two years ago. There is not a sign of it and the Government seems to be stonewalling. Some are worried that schools are dropping off the list. Nobody can answer straight questions about Dysart national school and Curraghmore national school, which are in places with expanding populations. These schools are inadequate when the least we should do is cherish all our children equally and give everybody an equal opportunity, regardless of his or her background. Children should begin their education in a comfortable and convenient primary school. Other schools waiting for additional accommodation to be provided are the Gaelscoil in Mullingar, Sonna national school, which my wife attended, St. Etchen's national school, Kinnegad, Loughnavalley national school and Gainstown national school.

  I could go on and on, but they are among the 800 on the list and every month the principal or board of management of each gets in contact to ask what is happening, but nobody seems to know. If one gets in contact with the Department, one is told that the process is at stage 3 or 4. Can someone not take a decision in principle to go ahead? That is what has to be done. We have plenty of ways to ensure that we get value for public money. Sometimes I am forced to think that we are being stonewalled.

  As I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Cullen, will agree, there should be a special subhead in the Vote of his Department or of the Department of Education and Science for safety at schools. It is a big issue for schools on national primary or secondary roads and I am sure he [895] comes across it in his own constituency in Waterford. We are all driving that bit faster and there are more cars on the roads. There have been about four times as many cars on the roads in the past 15 years than there were in the 1970s. The safety of children being brought to, and picked up from school is a major concern. Throughout County Westmeath a number of schools expressed major concern in this area. To ensure the appropriate traffic calming measures, safety lights, etc., are put in place, a special subhead should be dedicated to the issue. If I was on that side of the House, I would like to see it done, perhaps in conjunction with the Office of Public Works in the Minister of State's area and the Department of Education and Science. There is no use in crying when there is a fatal accident in one of those places. Then, typically, we will all rush out sympathising but the harm will have been done. Then we will try and put up the necessary lights or warning signals to try and ensure proper and appropriate safety at or near those locations.

  The other area in education I want to mention is third level grants. In 1974, I was lucky to get a third level education grant. I suppose I was poor enough then to get it. In fairness, I would not have got an education without it. Therefore I have a particular eagerness to see that area progressed.

  One aspect of the grants system which annoys people, not a little, is that one could be refused the grant because one's earnings were £20 over the eligibility limit due to doing a little overtime. Often people are forced to borrow from the credit union or the banks as a result. There should be tapered or marginal relief in such cases. It should apply where people have exceeded the income limit by between £1 and £2,500 or £3,000, and reduce in tenths until, eventually, if one is £3,000 over the income limit, one does not get anything. That would let people, whose income might occasionally exceed the income limit, avail of a partial grant and might bring a little more equity to the system.

  I will mention briefly a topic in which the Minister of State, Deputy Cullen, would have an interest, and in which he has tried to play some role, that is, decentralisation. It is in his bailiwick. It is one of those issues which occasionally we would rather have dealt with by a committee but with some committees it might never be dealt with.

  Decentralisation is a difficult issue which the Government mishandled. Initially its approach was like that of a bull in a china shop, where Ministers tried to select individual projects to promote their own constituencies. I am not saying I would not have done the same. I will not be a hypocrite or speak with two tongues here. I am sure that in the same position I would have done likewise and Mullingar probably would have got decentralised offices before any other place. However, it is the wrong approach and we must [896] get away from such a parochial approach if we are to succeed.

  The people of Mullingar – I must put their case because that is what I am elected to do – see decentralisation being implemented in all other areas of the midlands. We in Mullingar are on the N4, the N6, the N52, where major road networks are being put in place and there is a good railway network and good public transport. There are excellent schools and tremendous recreational facilities for equestrian sports and golf. There are tremendous GAA clubs in the area such as Mullingar Shamrocks, St. Loman's, etc., right across to Shandonagh. There are rugby clubs and the finest soccer clubs. Despite all this, the Minister has failed to make a decision with regard to Mullingar. I would advocate strongly that Mullingar should certainly be considered and I was extremely disappointed when the Taoiseach indicated that it did not appear to be on the list.

  An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy has one minute remaining.

  Mr. Penrose: I might be allowed speak for another couple of minutes by Deputy Finucane with whom I am sharing time because I have a great deal to say.

  The 100,000 carers have done tremendous work but we have given them scant recognition. We have a niggardly and measly way of means testing the allowance. It is scandalous. It is an indictment of this Government that it has failed to remove that means test. I have fought hard to remove it as carer's allowance is a fundamental requirement. If the Labour Party enters into Government with any other party that means test will have to go. I will not vote for a Government which fails to commit to doing that.

  An Ceann Comhairle: I point out to Deputy Penrose that it is not necessary for him to confine himself to 15 minutes because Deputy Finucane will be called next. The Deputy can use the remainder of his time.

  Mr. Penrose: I will certainly hurry up because I want to facilitate Deputy Finucane.

  An Ceann Comhairle: There is no need to share time.

  Mr. Penrose: I want to do so.

  I speak with conviction for carers. Many of them do tremendous work, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. They care for people and keep relations within their own home environment where they are happier. This issue is allied to the nursing home subvention. There are not enough public hospital beds to facilitate people in need and they are forced into nursing homes. There is a subvention regime which is not capable of paying the appropriate payments and we are letting people down. The Ombudsman said this in a recent report. We are in a catch-22 situation. However, if we tackle the carer's allowance issue, [897] it would contribute significantly to the solution to this problem. There are 100,000 people out there saving the State hundreds of millions of pounds each year and we have failed to recognise that. I am making a strong plea with regard to this fundamental requirement.

  I come from a strong GAA background and I was privileged to have played for 25 or 26 years. I am a good friend of the Minister, Deputy McCreevy – I am an even better friend of his brother, with whom I studied agriculture. I am surprised at the measure for élite sports people in the Finance Bill because the Minister has a strong GAA background. He is interested in innovation and does things differently. I admire him sometimes but I cannot understand why he sought to place at a disadvantage – this is the import of what he has done – GAA players and amateur players across all the codes with this measure where he will refund taxes paid since 1990 to the highest paid sports professionals in the country. I cannot understand it.

  I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Cullen, played those games also. As somebody who togged out behind a ditch years ago in ordinary circumstances—

  Mr. Cullen: We all did.

  Mr. Penrose: I am sure everyone did. We were very simple people. Sometimes there were animals in the fields where we played and we tried to avoid them.

  Mr. Cullen: The sheep were grazing.

  Mr. Penrose: The Minister of State is correct. He has the picture and he knows where I am coming from. Unfortunately, to my cost I also have a great interest in the equestrian sports, which is encouraged by Deputy McGahon and others, but that is neither here nor there. However, the amateur sports people to whom I referred give us tremendous enjoyment on Sundays, week in, week out. Thousands of people play Gaelic games, which are our premier national games, for no reward and they are excluded from this benefit.

  I am disappointed the GAA did not make stronger efforts in this regard. It would certainly have the ear of the Taoiseach and the ear of the Minister for Finance given that I used see them in Croke Park regularly. Amateur participants in all the other sports have been treated similarly.

  Fianna Fáil has always purported to be the great bastion and supporter of the GAA. At the time of local elections in the early 1980s I remember going into a Fianna Fáil meeting and being told I would not get the GAA vote. When I asked, “Why not, I played for my county?”, I was told, “You are not from Fianna Fáil.” Times have changed. I am sure some ordinary GAA players will wonder what this measure is all about.

  The measure in the Finance Bill is a clear insult [898] to the GAA and all other organisations and amateur sports persons who have given great enjoyment and thrills to the public and Irish people throughout the world over the years. It is a bad day for the GAA. It widens the gulf between the great amateur people who play the games in Ireland and the people who enjoy huge success and generate opulent wealth in professional sport. I am appalled that GAA players, who are true amateurs and do not receive a penny in payment, are being left further behind. The legislation is retrospective to 1990; generally, legislation is prospective. This is elitism gone mad, although I do not say that in a begrudging manner. The legislation should have attempted to facilitate ordinary sportspeople who can lose a lot and may have to take time off work if they are injured during games. Some of them may not have the best insurance policies, yet they have given great service and we enjoy their efforts. The Minister for Finance said this will only cost €5 million. If some of the people I am talking about got only €5,000 per year, it would make them very happy. It might allow them to buy a car. I appeal to the Minister to consider including a scheme in the Finance Bill that would help remedy this further anomaly that he has created. This is a frolic of the Minister's making.

  Waiting lists are an issue on which I hold strong opinions. The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Cullen, is extremely sharp at mathematics. He will tell me I cannot have my loaf and eat it. He is right, although there was a time when I wanted my loaf and I also wanted to eat it. As one gets older, one becomes more mature. I know we cannot have those things unless we pay for them. I disagree with the thrust of Government policy. The Minister of State will say that capital gains tax has been lowered from 40% to 20% and more activity has been generated because of that move. It was a 50% decrease for people who are very well off.

  I believe the waiting lists figures have been massaged. Some 26,000 people are waiting for in-patient treatment but there are many more on out-patient waiting lists. These people are waiting for elective surgery such as hip operations, cataract removals, knee operations and heart surgery. People are fed up waiting. Why should they have to wait two or three years, particularly if they are medical card holders? Those who have to wait for that length of time suffer and deteriorate and some will die before receiving treatment. What kind of society do we want to develop and champion? I worry about the type of society espoused by the Progressive Democrats where money is the key to getting treatment. Those treatments are a person's right and not a privilege. Every week Deputies table parliamentary questions in an attempt to expedite operations for their constituents. People come to Deputies' clinics and we try to do our best for them. Such people should have the same opportunity to receive treatment as [899] those who have private health insurance and significant amounts of money.

  I was particularly annoyed at the failure to increase the medical card eligibility limit for 2002. The poor are being penalised again. No amount of spin can disguise that those who are most in need of accessing primary care are those who are prevented from doing so because they cannot afford to visit a family doctor. Access to GPs at primary level should be free. There should have been a significant increase in medical cards eligibility limits to facilitate the issuing of more cards. The number of people who hold medical cards now is significantly lower than the number who held them in the early 1990s.

  The failure to raise income eligibility limits might have an ancillary affect. I welcome the increases in social welfare but when such increases are given and there is no increase in the medical card income eligibility limit, some people could lose the card as the additional payment could bring them over the qualifying threshold. That has to be revisited. Governments of varying hues always ensured that social welfare payments and medical card income guidelines were closely aligned. We always ensured that those in receipt of social welfare payments were automatically entitled to medical cards. This may come back to haunt the Government. The decision not to extend the medical card to over 200,000 people this year was one of the more retrograde steps taken by the Government. Thousands will be unable to access free GP care as a result. Under current guidelines, if one has an income of just over £5,200, one must pay for GP visits. A working parent earning £324 per week would have to have ten children before qualifying for a medical card. This is a significant issue and I call on the Minister to revisit it.

  The budget totally ignored the issue of child care. The Minister made no reference to it in his budget day speech and the Government has turned its back on this matter. It is a critical issue for working parents. The Government should have ensured that those in need of affordable child care have access to it. A commitment was made to the social partners under the PPF to include radical reform in the child care sector. That has been thrown out by the Government. Those issues will come back to haunt it in the forthcoming election.

  Mr. Finucane: I wish to share my time with Deputy Ó Caoláin. I am pleased the Minister of State, Deputy Cullen, is here. When people reflect on the Celtic tiger and the economy, many wonder where the money has gone.

  Mr. Cullen: The Deputy should look around him.

  Mr. Finucane: I will reflect on that in the time I have and the Minister may comment on it later. Decentralisation was referred to earlier. This [900] would have given a lifeline to many communities. The Minister for Finance will have received an excellent submission in this regard concerning a combination of three locations: Kilrush, Listowel and Newcastlewest. This was supported by Shannon Development, the community council and the county councils. It was an excellent proposition and it would have been laudable had the Minister given a decentralisation project to these three locations. It would have rejuvenated surrounding areas.

  However, it appears decentralisation, which was announced two years ago, has been put on ice until after the next election. There has been decentralisation in the past five years but it has been selective on the part of certain Ministers. For example, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform moved the Legal Aid Board to Cahirciveen and the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources moved the Marine Institute to Galway. There have been other examples throughout the country. While it may be the case, as Deputy Penrose said, that a Minister would do this and that the decentralisation which has taken place has been selective, I am disappointed, as are the communities I represent, by the delay in further decentralisation.

  As councils debated their budgets for this year at the end of January, the National Roads Authority was due to make an announcement about roads projects. This has been deferred until the end of February apparently because the authority did not have a new chairman. Many communities wait in anticipation of what is likely to happen. In my county, important traffic calming and safety projects for various communities have been deferred. Abbeyfeale is a classic example, as are Pallasgreen and Kildimo. The measures are extremely important for these communities and would not cost a fortune. Nevertheless, the National Roads Authority has deferred consideration of them because of restrictions on finance.

  I have heard many Members speak on the issue of the tax concession scheme for sportsmen. The Minister, Deputy McCreevy, will certainly be remembered by the racing industry as benign and as having respect for such sporting pastimes. Many people have said to me that the concession surprised them. As Deputy Penrose said, it is magnanimous, dating back as it does to 1990 and allowing people choose the best ten years. Some of the sportsmen involved have been extremely successful and I doubt if they sought this concession.

  However, it has left a gap on the amateur side, especially where the GAA is concerned. It will be interesting to see what discussions will take place between the association and the Taoiseach, who regards himself as being well disposed towards it. We all know about the £60 million in funding the GAA was given to influence the outcome of a critical vote. It will be interesting to see what develops. A person I met recently said he was appalled at the granting of this concession to many successful sportsmen. He said that, for [901] the past few Christmases, he had been gritting the roads for the county council and his overtime was subsequently taxed. He asked why concessions were given to some and not to others.

  There has been considerable debate in the House on the health service. We know the number of elderly people is growing and that facilities must be in place for them. Unfortunately, the Government appears to believe that private nursing homes will take up the slack. Not enough consideration has been given to hospitals for the elderly under the jurisdiction of health boards. A classic example is St. Ita's Hospital in Newcastlewest. In the past four and a half years, we have had visits from the Taoiseach, the previous Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Cowen, and his successor, Deputy Martin. The provision of an Alzheimer's unit is especially important in this hospital and the anticipated cost is more than £1 million. The Taoiseach and Ministers saw what was required but, so far, not a block has been laid and the project appears stuck interminably in design stages and so on. In its place, relatives visit the elderly people in other hospitals where the doors must be locked after them to prevent the elderly Alzheimer's patients wandering around the rest of the hospital. An Alzheimer's unit is very important in St. Ita's Hospital. There is also a shortage of respiratory and rehabilitation beds there.

  The regional hospital is the flagship hospital in the area. Relatives of elderly people in the hospital are often frustrated by the fact that there is pressure to create bed space which puts pressure on the relatives to find somewhere to place their elderly family member. In many cases they cannot get access to St. Ita's Hospital. I received a complaint this week from a person in Newcastlewest who was bitterly disappointed by this because he believes that his mother, who is over 80, needs the type of care St. Ita's Hospital can provide. This is an unfortunate example to bear in mind when we reflect on what has been achieved as a result of the Celtic tiger and whether we are the caring society which gives elderly people quality of life in the last years of their lives. We have not succeeded in this regard and I have only given my area as a classic example of this.

  Much has been made of the recent announcement by Fine Gael to give assistance to people who bought Eircom shares. It is interesting to note that the economists who did not support this and who castigated it in the media are familiar with stocks and shares and write about and trade in them. They would be aware of capital gains tax, shares being offset and losses recovered by financial institutions. I am not concerned about such people, rather about the ordinary person who saw the Eircom flotation as a gilt edged opportunity and to whom it was portrayed as such by the Government, especially the Minister, Deputy O'Rourke. It was hyped out of all proportion. Do we remember the hoardings, fanfare, trumpets, smoke and the way it was presented on [902] television? People were told this was their gilt edged opportunity to make some money from what was regarded as a successful company. We know what happened.

  Many pensioners and others who invested their nest eggs have been disappointed. Why not give them a return? It is said that it will open other areas where people will want compensation for their losses from failed investments. This was not like other flotations, it was unique. This was a successful semi-State company.

  Mr. Cullen: Backing horses.

  Mr. Finucane: I would not speak on this if I were the Minister of State because it is recorded in the media how it was hyped out of all proportions.

  Mr. Cullen: I told people not to buy them.

  Mr. Finucane: The Minister of State can address the matter when he replies. The Government earned more than £4.5 billion from this exercise. If everyone eligible were to avail of the compensation for losses incurred, the cost would be more than €90 million. It cost £74 million to launch the flotation. People were duped and conned. I assure the Government that, if it ever floats another semi-State company, people will have been so burned by the Eircom exercise that they will not invest and it will be left to institutional investors and others who understand and trade in stocks and shares. I make no apology for the compensation scheme, given that people were conned in this exercise. I was criticised for it by people who thought it was a bad idea, but when I explained it and rationalised it for them, they supported it. The people who telephoned the radio chat shows to condemn this exercise, probably orchestrated by the Fianna Fáil press office, included a woman who had invested in Eircom shares but would not claim compensation. As Deputy Noonan said, it would not be compulsory to claim compensation. It is important to remember that the State gained more than £4 billion from the sale of Telecom Éireann.

  Mr. Cullen: The Irish people got that money.

  Mr. Finucane: When people reflect on the past few years they will ask, “Where did the money go?”.

  Mr. Cullen: It went to the people of Ireland.

  Mr. Finucane: In order to balance the budget the Minister for Finance raided the social insurance fund. Over the past few months we have had 20,000 redundancies, but redundancy payments made by the State have remained static for many years. I would prefer to see the social insurance fund used to update the level of redundancy payments. The Celtic tiger will not live for[903] ever and we will probably see more people losing their jobs.

  Mr. Cullen: It will have a few new cubs.

  Mr. Finucane: The Adjournment Debate in Dáil Éireann is a hypocritical exercise. A Deputy presents the case for a school which wants to build an extension and is given a pat answer by the Minister setting out how much the Department has spent on education over a number of years. The information sought is not provided and the Deputy is not allowed to ask questions. Within my own community people are asking when the Gaelscoil in Newcastle West and the extensions to Crecora, Drumtrasna and Pallaskenry schools will be built. We may hear a raft of announcements in the weeks before the general election in order to convince the people of west Limerick to vote for the Government but the Minister has left matters a little late.

  Previous speakers mentioned the carer's allowance. The medical assessment criteria seem to be designed to reject as many applicants as possible. I know of two people who are both over 80 years of age and whose daughter gave up work in order to look after them. The daughter's application was rejected on medical grounds even though both her parents suffer from medical conditions. If those two people did not have a member of their family willing to look after them, they would become a burden on the State. Are we a caring society? Do we, with the material wealth we have gained in the past few years, care sufficiently for people? The proof of the pudding is in the eating and we seem to have become a less caring society.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I thank Deputy Finucane for sharing his time.

  It was amusing last weekend to listen to the Tánaiste saying at her party conference that the forthcoming general election would present a choice between the Progressive Democrats and the P45s. By the look of them, very few of the PD delegates in Limerick have ever had to worry about a P45 or to spend time standing in a dole queue. I doubt if any of them suffered from the social welfare cutbacks Deputy McCreevy introduced when he was Minister for Social Welfare. The lesser-spotted PD is a very rare bird in the constituency I represent and I hope it will be rarer still throughout the country after polling day.

  But their Thatcherite influence on this Government has been crucial and the Minister for Finance is their soul mate. The Finance Bill implements the tax changes in the budget and introduces further tax measures. I described the budget, when it was introduced, as a failure and there is nothing in the Finance Bill to make me change my mind. It is a last desperate gamble by a Government which has squandered the best financial position enjoyed by any Government since the foundation of the State.

[904]   The Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat Government has had two enormous advantages enjoyed by no previous Government in the Twenty-six Counties. First, it has been in office at a time of exceptional prosperity which resulted in budget surpluses in four successive years. Second, despite its slim Dáil majority, it has been able to plan for five budgets in a row. Those advantages have been scandalously squandered by the Fianna Fáil-PD Government in every budget and Finance Bill. Not only has it failed to tackle the structural inequalities which warp our economy and damage our society, it has worsened those inequalities and widened the gap between rich and poor over its term.

  The refusal to extend medical card coverage to people other than the over 70s was a disgrace and will be remembered as one of the great failures of this Government. We are all of one mind that the over 70s are deserving of the medical card but what of those families stuck at the very bottom of the economic reality faced by people today? The Minister complained of tighter fiscal restraints. Let us examine the facts. Corporation tax cuts cost £214 million in 2001 alone. That is more than twice what it would cost to extend the medical card to 200,000 more people. That is a damning fact and an indictment of the Minister and the Government. This does not take into account cuts in capital gains tax and other measures which will benefit the better off.

  The Minister claimed that only 11% of the tax measures he introduced were aimed at high earners. He forgot to say that these earners also got everything the low paid got in addition to another slice of the tax cut cake. Meanwhile, workers on and below the minimum wage are still in the tax net. While the Minister can generously play to the demands of his friends in the gambling industry, a significant number of workers earning less than the minimum wage will remain in the tax net. These workers and their families do not qualify for the medical card.

  The Government is restoring interest relief on rented residential property and reducing stamp duty rates for investors. This is a further bonus for landlords while the Government has failed to protect tenants from rising rents and the growing rate of evictions.

  Debate adjourned.