Dáil Éireann - Volume 576 - 10 December, 2003

Leaders' Questions.

  Mr. Kenny:The announcement last week by the Government of a major programme of decentralisation has caused consternation in some areas and has been a source of consolation in others.

  Mr. M. Ahern:Among the Front Benches.

  Mr. Kenny:Either the programme is a reaction to the Government's fear of the decimation of its parties in the local elections or it is a consequence of a well-thought out and well planned strategy. If it is the latter, then I assume the Government had access to reports and detailed criteria on which some towns were selected for decentralisation and others were not selected.

  I assume the Tanáiste does not want Ministers of State claiming decisions were made based on their positions and political interference. Is such evidence available? Did the Government have at its disposal detailed criteria and reports upon which decisions were made to relocate public servants to various places around the country? Has the Tanáiste seen this material and were judgments based on it?

  Given that 80 towns were not chosen as locations for public servants, will the Government publish the criteria, reports and assessments so everybody can understand the basis upon which these decisions were made?

  The Tanáiste:I do not accept there is widespread consternation about this matter. I do not know to whom Deputy Kenny has been talking.

  Mr. Gormley:There is consternation.

  The Tanáiste:Perhaps there is widespread consternation in Fine Gael. I assure Deputies there is not widespread consternation in the public service.

  Mr. Healy:There is in Carrick-on-Suir.

  An Ceann Comhairle:Please allow the Tanáiste to continue without interruption.

[1302]  The Tanáiste:This matter was under consideration for four years. Deputy Kenny, his predecessor and others raised the issue of decentralisation on many occasions in this House. Nobody thought it would happen.

  Mr. Connaughton:It might not happen.

  The Tanáiste:The first criteria is to determine how we can have an effective public service. The most important issue is that we have an efficient and effective public service. If some of the larger companies in the world operate effectively on a decentralised basis, many operating from this country from places like the Deputy's constituency in the west, there is no reason the Government of Ireland cannot operate accordingly.

  We considered relocating whole Departments and decided to relocate eight of them. The headquarters of the Department of Education and Science is being relocated to Mullingar, the Department of Agriculture and Food is being relocated to Portlaoise and so on. We also considered the cluster effect so that, within a region, public servants would have the opportunity to develop a career path and would not have to remain in a particular grade or organisation, or move back to Dublin, as often happened in the past. It was on that basis and on the basis of the submissions from 130 towns, that we made our decision.

  Many areas have yet to be identified. There is no reason towns not successfully identified last week by the Minister for Finance cannot make a good case for areas such as the IT section of the Revenue Commissioners and some 500 people working in the area of health who are going to be decentralised. Those issues remain to be resolved in terms of relocation destinations.

  At the end of the day, the decision was a political one. There was widespread consultation four years ago throughout Departments at every level. From my experience, the Government's announcement has been well received in Departments.

  Mr. Kenny:The Tanáiste has not answered my question. I accept this issue was discussed for four years and that Irish companies operate on a worldwide scale from Ireland. If the decision is based on a well thought out and planned strategy, then the Tanáiste as a member of Government had at her disposal reports based on four years of discussions, criteria based on four years analysis and indicators based on the national spatial strategy. She, therefore, has a volume of information which she should now publish. She has not answered my question in this regard.

  The Tanáiste rightly said there are towns that have not been identified for inclusion in this regard. They are entitled to know the reason they have not been included. We heard comments from the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment that public servants were included in a sort of raffle for relo[1303]cation to various parts of the country based on his appointment and interference.

  Has the Tanáiste seen the evidence of four years of discussions and reports? Was the matter discussed by Cabinet? In the interests of fairness and equity, will the Government now publish the criteria and documentation so those towns not included can have that information at their disposal? Will the Government publish, or not publish, that information?

  Mr. Allen:It is a straight question requiring a straight answer.

  The Tanáiste:We did not commission an outside consultancy report on this matter.

  Mr. Rabbitte:That is a first.

  Mr. J. O'Keeffe:Perhaps that is something the Tanáiste should do more often.

  Mr. S. Ryan:The Government had a great deal of inside information.

  Mr. Durkan:Was there an internal report?

  An Ceann Comhairle:Please allow the Tanáiste to continue without interruption.

  The Tanáiste:Deputies appear to be suggesting we should have brought in an outside group, independent of Government, to examine the criteria.

  Mr. Kenny:The Government should publish the information.

  Mr. P. McGrath:The Tánaiste should answer the question.

  Mr. Kenny:The Government had four years to study the matter. It should publish the information.

  An Ceann Comhairle:Deputy Kenny, please allow the Tanáiste to continue without interruption.

  The Tanáiste:This matter was discussed for four years. Deputy Kenny and many of his colleagues were critical of the fact that it took so long to make decisions.

  Mr. Ring:The Tánaiste should answer the question.

  The Tanáiste:We examined the national spatial strategy and the infrastructure in various towns. We made sure larger operations went to towns with critical infrastructure.

  Mr. Kenny:The Government should publish the information.

[1304]  The Tanáiste:Balanced regional developed governed the Government's decision in this regard.

  Mr. M. Smith:There were letters from every Opposition Member.

  Mr. Allen:It is all clichés.

  An Ceann Comhairle:The Minister, Deputy Smith, should allow the Tánaiste to continue without interruption.

  Mr. P. McGrath:The Tánaiste should answer the question.

  Mr. Martin:We received submissions from the Opposition.

  An Ceann Comhairle:I ask Deputies to afford the Tánaiste the same courtesy as was afforded to Deputy Kenny and allow her to answer the question without interruption.

  Mr. Stagg:Her own Minister is interrupting her. The Chair must be blind to that side of the House.

  Ms Harney:Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. Deputy Kenny has criticised us for selecting 53 towns instead of 130 towns.

  Mr. Kenny:On a point of order—

  Ms Harney:The Deputy had his say. Which towns does Deputy Kenny think we should not have selected?

  (Interruptions).

  Mr. Kenny:I wish to ask a further question.

  An Ceann Comhairle:Deputy Kenny is being disorderly and I ask him to resume his seat. There is provision for only one supplementary question and the Deputy has asked it.

  Mr. Allen:The Tánaiste will not answer the question.

  Mr. Durkan:Come home from Parlon country.

  Mr. R. Bruton:The watchdog has its nose in the trough.

  An Ceann Comhairle:Deputies should allow Deputy Rabbitte to speak without interruption. He is entitled to the same courtesy as was afforded to Deputy Richard Bruton's party leader.

  Mr. Rabbitte:The House should note that this was the first decision made by the Government without hiring a consultant.

  I wish to ask the Tánaiste about the VAT loophole, closed off by the House in the financial res[1305]olutions on budget day, that enabled developers to abuse tax law and avoid payments on building land. Is the Tánaiste aware that it operated on the basis of arranging the letting of development land to builders on a short-term basis so that the transactions of sale of site and sale of buildings could be separated? The result was enormous moneys forfeited by the Exchequer. Is the Tánaiste aware how long this has been going on? Will she tell the House how much money has been lost to the Exchequer? When did she first become aware of this loophole? Is it the case that this has been going on for almost eight years? Is it the case that hundreds of millions of euro have been lost to the Exchequer? Is it the case that a number of Ministers were well aware of this for years?

  It was not until the whistle was blown and it was brought to the attention of the Revenue Commissioners by the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee that any action was taken. Will the Tánaiste explain how, having spent the last eight years rubbing shoulders with developers on every conceivable occasion, including the tent at the Galway races, Ministers could have been ignorant of this and hundred of millions could have been forgone?

  Ms Harney:I am not aware that this loophole has existed for eight years. A measure was passed last week to put this beyond doubt. It gives the Revenue Commissioners the necessary power to look again at cases that might have availed of the loophole. I became aware of this only in November of this year when the Revenue Commissioners brought it to the attention of the Minister for Finance. I was not aware that a loophole of this kind had been in existence for quite some time. I do not believe that a Deputy ever raised this in the House. We have closed off this loophole and it is right that we should have done so.

  Mr. Rabbitte:It is not that this loophole might have been used – it was used extensively. On questioning the Taoiseach, he instanced one small scheme where €18 million was forgone. Deputy Perry brought it to the attention of both the Comptroller and Auditor General and the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners. If this has been going on for seven or eight years, given the close nexus between developers – the major source of funds for Fianna Fáil – how could this not be known? Does the Tánaiste agree with me that in circumstances where capital gains tax had been cut for developers from 40% to 20%, where they engaged in excessive profit-taking beyond their wildest dreams for the past seven or eight years and where the 60% capital gains tax introduced as a penalty in the 1998 Finance Act was repealed when it came to bite, it is unreasonable to believe that this was not known in Government circles and was effectively facilitated over those years?

[1306]  Ms Harney:If it has been happening for the past eight years, then Deputy Rabbitte was in Government when it started.

  Mr. Rabbitte:I did not know about it.

  Ms Harney:Neither did I, nor do I believe the Government knew about it and, to the best of my knowledge, no parliamentary questions were tabled on this matter.

  Ms Burton:The developers knew about it.

  Ms Harney:That may well be the case. However, beneficiaries are not going to blow the whistle on themselves. There is an onus on us all when we become aware of loopholes like this to do what we can to remedy them.

  When he was debating the resolution, the Taoiseach said that we had become aware of one scheme where the sum of money involved was €16 million or €18 million. This is the only knowledge I have on this matter.

  Mr. Rabbitte:The Taoiseach did not say there was only one scheme. He instanced one scheme.

  An Ceann Comhairle:Deputy Rabbitte, please allow the Tánaiste to continue without interruption.

  Ms Harney:We have put the matter right and did so as soon as it came to the Government's attention. I understand that the Revenue Commissioners brought it to the Government's attention. If the Public Accounts Committee was aware of this, it should have brought it to our attention. Perhaps the Chairman of the committee spoke to the Minister for Finance and if he did, I would welcome that. The important thing is that the loophole is closed and no one else can avail of it. No matter what tax schemes we have, we seem to have professionals in this town who know no boundaries when it comes to finding a way through the tax code with a view to creating avoidance measures.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:People have been horrified and distressed by the revelations made by “Prime Time” on Monday regarding the extent of child sexual abuse on the Internet. The programme revealed the extent of the problem and exposed the fact that those accessing the sites are now being obliged to provide their own images in order to access further images from other site users. It is clear that the sexual abuse of children is driven as never before and the Internet is the engine of this vehicle.

  Does the Tánaiste agree that this is as serious an issue, both locally and nationally, as all of the cases revealed regarding State and religious-run institutions going back many years which have been the subject of Ms Justice Laffoy's attention? Does the Tánaiste also agree that the issue regarding State and religious-run institutions is not that the people who were trusted to operate [1307]these institutions were a group apart, but that the issue is opportunity and the Internet has provided opportunity on a scale never seen before? Is the Tánaiste concerned that the extent of this abuse was exposed by a media, rather than Garda, investigation? Does she believe the gardaí dealing with this crime are properly resourced and have the necessary strategies to address this sick pursuit? Does the Tánaiste believe we should ensure that measures, including legislation, should be explored and introduced to address this terrible scourge in our midst that threatens children throughout society?

  The Tánaiste:I agree it is a very serious issue. One of the downsides of the development of modern technology is that it creates the scope for widespread abuse of this kind. In many ways, this is why these matters have to be dealt with on a more European or global level. We have strong legislation and there have been a number of Garda investigations and prosecutions in Ireland in recent times. Certainly, if there are gaps in the legislation or resource related issues to be considered, this will be done. We also have an Internet Advisory Board, which has representatives from child interests as well as gardaí and others. I have no doubt that the Government will consult the board on the issues that arise.

  I did not see the “Prime Time” programme but I believe it was an act of public service broadcasting. It has certainly had a major impact. If a response is required from Government by way of resources or legislation, it will certainly be forthcoming. In the main, we must consider some of these issues on a more global or European scale. I know there is much concern at European level about the matter raised by the Deputy. There has also been much co-operation in this area, which has led to successful detection and prosecution in recent times.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:I thank the Tánaiste for her reply. In light of the revelations and the concern that exists, not only in this jurisdiction but throughout the European Union and globally, as the Tánaiste rightly stated, is it not incumbent on Government to initiate a review of Garda strategies, child protection and legislation regarding the Internet? I certainly believe it is an imperative and I would appreciate if the Tánaiste would confirm the Government's intentions in this regard.

  Staying with the theme of the abuse of children, today is International Human Rights Day and it is also the last of the 16 Days of Action Against Violence Against Women. It must be noted that the statistics published by Women's Aid show that in 52% of cases of domestic violence, both wife and child abuse are perpetrated by the same offender. There is a great need to recognise—

[1308]  An Ceann Comhairle:The Deputy's minute has concluded.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:—that often those who are abusive of their wives or partners are also likely to be abusers of children. Abuse in the home of women and children is an unseen crime being perpetrated throughout this island and globally and it needs to be properly addressed.

  An Ceann Comhairle:The Deputy's time has concluded.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:I am concluding, a Cheann Comhairle. With respect to the Tánaiste, despite her assurances that there is adequate legislation in place, I do not believe that we have the legislation necessary—

  An Ceann Comhairle:I ask the Deputy to conclude.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:—to address these matters properly.

  An Ceann Comhairle:We cannot have one Standing Order for Deputies Kenny and Rabbitte and another for Deputy Ó Caoláin.

  The Tánaiste:As I said to the Deputy, these are all new areas the Garda and others have to deal with. I am certain that the Garda process is under constant review regarding the use of modern technology for crime. The Internet Advisory Board has issued safety guidelines and I urge parents with computers in the home to which children have access to follow them. They could be of great assistance. The same applies to others who have computers that may be accessible to children.

  Ultimately, it is important that we have the determination and vigour at national level and internationally through co-operation with police authorities to root out those who are making considerable sums of money abusing children. Let us face it, this is what is happening. We must all co-operate in combating the abuse of children by serious criminals.