Rabbitte Throws a Punch at the Greens
Deaglán de Bréadún
It’s often said the age of political oratory is dead but, if that’s the case, then Labour’s Pat Rabbitte is the exception to the rule. Here is an early transcript of his speech in yesterday’s Budget debate where he took a swipe at the Greens that even had Taoiseach Brian Cowen teetering on the brink of laughter. In the interests of balance and fairness I am giving the remarks made by Green Party leader and Environment Minister John Gormley later in the day.
Keeping the art of parliamentary oratory alive: Pat Rabbitte at Leinster House (Photograph by Brenda Fitzsimons)
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Deputy Gilmore dealt with the role of Fianna Fáil in contributing to the state the country is in, but there is another party in Government. It is called the Green Party and before I forget it, I want to say a word or two about its contribution. When I left the Chamber last night, I was struck by an interview I caught almost accidentally by the deputy leader of the Green Party, Deputy Mary Alexandra White. When asked she said she was very happy about the budget. She said it had green fingerprints all over it and that there had been delivery on Dáil reform. I was struck by that because nobody on the opposite benches said they were very happy about the budget. Even the Taoiseach acknowledged on television that there was serious hardship and he took no pleasure in it. He had a demeanour which could not be worse if Clara lost the county championship.
The Taoiseach: They were beaten in the semi-final.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Deputy Mary Alexandra White was very happy.
Deputy Michael D. Higgins: Yes.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: She then went on about the green fingerprints, although I do not know where they are on this budget. There is no carbon tax and nothing on the disabled persons grant.
A Deputy: The bicycles are punctured.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: The €150 million for public transport is gone. There is nothing in it about bulbs, carrots or parsnips, so where are the fingerprints? Then it dawned on me that the Deputy was referring to the delivery of Dáil reform. That is where Deputy Gormley is now taking shelter, as he hid from the photograph of the Cabinet press conference yesterday. He is responsible for Dáil reform, but when one examines it one must ask where it is. In yesterday’s budget there was a list of severe cuts for Deputies, which are necessary given the current state of the country and the necessity to provide a lead. It includes cutting pensions for former Ministers, but how is that Dáil reform? The only element of Dáil reform listed concerns the committees, but the Minister for Finance said the Oireachtas Commission would deal with them. The committees are creatures of the Taoiseach, not of the Oireachtas Commission, so I do not know where Dáil reform is set out in this package. I find it hard to stomach the Minister, Deputy Gormley, lecturing us on the cuts that should be made. Ever since the media started the campaign about add-ons created by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, the Minister, Deputy Gormley – since his speech in Dundalk and a half a dozen times since – has chosen to lecture the House on how he is going to clean up Dodge City. I find it interesting because he negotiated the formation of the Government with Deputy Bertie Ahern, who is the author of all the add-ons. I do not suppose anybody is arguing about the benchmarking of ordinary Deputies to principal officers in terms of salaries but Deputy Bertie Ahern’s add-ons caused the media begrudgery and outcry. What did Deputy Gormley say when he met Deputy Bertie Ahern to negotiate the formation of the Government? Did he ask how many committee chairs and Ministers of State he could have? Did he object at that time to any of these issues? He did not. He also asked that two Green Party Senators be appointed. Did he effect any changes in the stipend for these positions? Deputy Gogarty, who is a committee chairman, created an event of considerable moment when the news came from the Green Party conference that he was going to resign as party spokesperson on education. I did not know there was a party spokesperson on education in the Green Party and I certainly did not know that it was Deputy Gogarty. The remarkable thing, however, is that he did not forego the €20,000 stipend that came with his committee chairmanship. Some Deputies say, “Deputy Gogarty is a nice fellow, slightly eccentric. He rolls around on the floor at public meetings and asks Senator Frances Fitzgerald to tickle his belly, and people give him some indulgence for this”. I do not believe he is daft, rather he is the biggest actor in this House. He has been getting away with it. If one wants to go back a little further, what about the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent? I have read newspaper articles recently arguing that the reason for this country’s casual acquaintance with ethics is its Catholic ethos and concepts such as the firm purpose of amendment. While the Minister of State is not a member of the majority faith, he is more Jesuitical than those who adhere to it. This is the man who said he would not lead the Green Party into government with Fianna Fáil. Although he did not do so, he got the Minister, Deputy Gormley, to lead his party into government, while he went in the back door and re-emerged as the Minister of State with responsibility for parsnips and organic tomatoes. That is the record of the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent. The Minister, Deputy Gormley, has a decision to make if he wants to take the moral high ground. What will he do on the decision not to pay the Christmas bonus? He will have an opportunity to vote in the House on the few bob that is paid to social welfare recipients to make Christmas possible for them. We will see what the man who arranged with his predecessor, the Minister of State, Deputy Dick Roche, to make the decision on the M3 on the day before he entered government, does now on the Christmas bonus. What is the biggest decision this Government has made since it came into office? Without doubt, it was the €440 billion underwriting of the reckless behaviour of untruthful bankers. Where was the Minister, Deputy Gormley? He was asleep in bed with his telephone switched off. A garda had to wake him up to tell him the two Brians had been up all night and had mortgaged the future of the country to save the banking system and, as the Taoiseach would have it and I do not question his motivation, to save the economy. It was a Monday night and the Minister had given instructions that his bicycle clips and helmet be left out for the following morning because when the cameras are present for Cabinet meetings it is important that he cycles to work, even though two Garda cars, one carrying the Minister’s lunch box of Ryvita and tomato, follow him as he does so. The Minister had to be raised early that morning because he could not be found when the time came to make his decision. A party that does not stand for anything will stand for nothing. That is the position the Green Party has arrived at and we will see now what its Deputies do on the Christmas bonus and other matters. For too long, the party has been flying beneath the radar. It is so preoccupied with saving the planet and other loftier issues that it has nothing to do with the state of the economy. We will see what it does but its performance until now has been lamentable. I note the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent, has let the Taoiseach know that he is available to switch to another ministry. At this time of depression, that news must give the country a bit of a lift.
Deputy Michael D. Higgins: The Minister of State will move on to fish.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: How much time remains?
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy’s time has expired.
Deputy Denis Naughten: The Chair should give Deputy Rabbitte another five minutes. The Taoiseach is enjoying himself.
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy John Gormley): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the supplementary budget. I do so both as leader of the Green Party and as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It has been an exceptionally tough six months for the Irish people since the October budget. We are faced with the biggest economic challenges in the State’s history just as the world is experiencing the worst recession in 70 years. We have seen job losses increase on a daily basis and our tax revenues reduce dramatically. As a result, we are relying far too much on borrowed money to run public services in the current year. This is not sustainable. It is the inescapable duty of the Government to provide clear leadership and to ensure that the necessary corrective action is taken in this supplementary budget. We must put the public finances on a sound footing in the interest of long-term economic recovery. The Government is resolute that the actions and measures announced by the Minister for Finance are essential and proportionate. This is a very tough budget but it is a fair one. In this regard, I particularly welcome the decision to maintain social welfare payments at current rates. In preparing this budget, the Government’s priorities are to ensure economic and environmental sustainability. We are promoting economic competitiveness so that we will be able to respond quickly when the global situation improves. Above all else, we are protecting the most vulnerable in our society to the greatest extent possible. In my own Department, the effect of the measures taken in this supplementary budget is quite marked. The expenditure level now determined for 2009 presents us with significant challenges in managing scarce resources in the most effective manner. I am confident, however, that we have examined every expenditure line critically. We will ensure that the overall investment of some €2.6 billion is put to the best possible use for the public in the programmes and services provided by my Department, by local government and by our partner agencies. Our overall budget of €2.6 billion cannot be dismissed as insignificant. It will help deliver essential services throughout the State. Capital spending of more than €1.6 billion will sustain thousands of jobs while also delivering vital infrastructure. We are continuing to invest in environmental protection in regard to water, waste management and natural and built heritage. A provision of €500 million is provided for water services infrastructure which, even in these adverse economic times, represents an increase of 2% on our high 2008 outturn. This reflects the Government’s ongoing commitment to infrastructural and environmental investment in water services. We will continue to preserve and protect our water resources as a key priority in environmental policy by vigorously pursuing our programme to meet European Union standards for drinking water and waste water treatment. Investment will also enhance competitiveness by providing the infrastructure necessary for sustainable economic development. We will continue to sustain the priority we attach to housing, particularly against the backdrop of increasing social housing need.Within our overall housing expenditure, we will continue to maintain a strong focus on the needs of the most vulnerable, including the homeless. I will return to and provide greater details on these issues later. The Green Party and our partners in Government believe that the smart economy is the green economy and that green economy cannot prosper until such time as green thinking is fully integrated into the social partnership model. Today, I wish to announce that the commitment given in the programme for government for the introduction into partnership of an environmental and sustainability pillar is being acted upon. Henceforth, environmental NGOs will participate fully in social partnership. That no such pillar existed during the boom years was a grave oversight, one which worked to the detriment of the economy as a whole. Social partnership has, for the most part, worked well and will continue to work if it is remodelled in the longer term interests of our society and economy. The environmental pillar will ensure that economic decisions have at their very core the concept of sustainability. If sustainability is not worked into economic decision-making, one has to question its longer term validity. Had the environmental sector been involved in social partnership, we could have avoided the worst excesses of the Celtic tiger in terms of planning and transport. Having the Green Party in Government will undoubtedly mean many of these issues will be addressed and that those difficulties can be ameliorated. The Green Party involvement will result in these long-term structural changes. It is precisely this type of structural change that will be our legacy. Having an environmental pillar as part of social partnership will also mean that no one will question the wisdom and efficacy of a carbon levy. The Minister for Finance has given an unequivocal commitment that this carbon levy will be a major feature of the next budget. It is reasonable to say that the majority of Green Party taxation ideas will be implemented during the lifetime of this Government, going far beyond anything negotiated and contained in the programme for government. I stated during my Leader’s speech at the Green Party convention last month that we would emerge from this crisis with a fairer and more just society, with a leaner, greener and smarter economy. The Green Party has long argued that our tax model needed to be radically restructured. It is worth recalling, when listening to the jibes from the Opposition benches, that these parties were trying to outdo each other during the last election with their tax reduction plans. I do not include in that Sinn Féin as it at least maintained some level of consistency in that regard. The two main Opposition parties now claim to have answers to the crisis. Even a cursory examination of the ideas put forward by them show they lack real substance. Fine Gael, in supporting the bank guarantee scheme last October, displayed an admirable sense of responsibility. Sadly, this was lacking in the Labour Party which opted for cheap politics.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: The Minister was in bed on the night.
Deputy John Gormley: To put it bluntly, had this House not supported the banks that evening our country was finished. There would have been no money for our Garda, teachers, nurses or other public servants, absolutely nothing.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: It is a wonder then that the Minister did not wake up.
Deputy John Gormley: The Labour Party continues with its innuendo and even more direct comment that the proposals for NAMA is a bail-out for bankers and builders.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: Exactly.
Deputy John Gormley: I note Deputy Shortall is nodding in agreement. I support the measures not because I am in any way supportive of bankers and builders but because I and my colleagues have received the best possible advice from the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA. It is also worth noting that internationally the idea is considered extremely innovative. Is the Labour Party questioning the competence and integrity of the NTMA? I speak as the Leader of a party that has never taken—–
Deputy Róisín Shortall: We are certainly questioning the integrity of Government.
Deputy John Gormley: —–a cent from any bank or building company. I regret the same cannot be said of the Deputy’s party.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: What is the Minister talking about?
Deputy Simon Coveney: With all due respect, this issue is not about the Green Party but about the country. We are speaking about the people the Government is asking to bail it out.
Deputy John Gormley: It is. With respect, I have had to listen today and yesterday to nonsense from the Labour Party, in particular.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minister should direct his remarks through the Chair.
Deputy John Gormley: I apologise. We can contrast our record in Government with the Labour Party’s record in Government. We have been in Government for only 20 months and have overhauled the political system.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: Really.
Deputy John Gormley: Yes.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: That is a joke.
Deputy John Gormley: We have reduced the number of Ministers of State—–
Deputy Róisín Shortall: That is a joke. What is the Minister talking about?
Deputy John Gormley: —–while the Labour Party increased the number when last in Government.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: A Chairman of a committee, no longer spokesperson on education, continues to hold his €20,000 allowance.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Please allow the Minister to make his contribution.
Deputy John Gormley: We have abolished ministerial pensions for sitting Deputies while Labour Party in government did nothing in that regard.
Deputy Simon Coveney: The Green Party has not done anything.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: The Minister is posturing again as if this is a debate on Dáil reform.
Deputy John Gormley: We have introduced a cap on spending on local elections. The Labour Party did nothing. We will go much further when it comes to curbing and policing political donations. The Labour Party had a chance to do that but did not do so.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: We did not sell the country down the Swanee.
Deputy John Gormley: I understand that a Minister of State post was created for Deputy Rabbitte on that occasion. Deputy Shortall should take a look back at the record of that time.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: I imagine those comments hurt.
Deputy John Gormley: We will continue with a major reform of the banking system and will introduce the most rigorous form of regulation. When the Labour Party was in Government, this did not happen. That is a fact.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: We did not make the type of announcements being made here.
Deputy John Gormley: I am more than happy at any stage to compare and contrast our record of achievement in a short space with that of the Opposition parties.
Deputy Simon Coveney: This Government’s record of achievement is that it has driven the country into recession.
Deputy John Gormley: When I presented the carbon budget in October—–
An Ceann Comhairle: All interventions must be addressed through the Chair.
Deputy Simon Coveney: Deputy Gormley has a cheek to even refer to this Government’s record.
An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Coveney, please allow the Minister to make his contribution.
Deputy John Gormley: Deputy Coveney rightly pointed out a few moments ago that we were not responsible for this crisis and that is a fact.
Deputy Simon Coveney: The Government has been in office for two years and Ireland is in crisis.
Deputy Dick Roche: As are many countries in the world.
Deputy Simon Coveney: Not as bad as us.
An Ceann Comhairle: The Minister, without interruption please.
Deputy John Gormley: When I presented the carbon budget in October, I pointed out that the projections available at that time in terms of greenhouse gas emissions were likely to overstate the position for the Kyoto period, given the rapidly changing economic outlook. This has been confirmed in the most recent analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, published on 13 March. This analysis takes account of a macro-economic scenario prepared by the ESRI which assumes that GNP will contract by 7% between 2007 and 2010. Based on this information, the EPA has projected that with full implementation of all of the emission reduction measures already announced, the distance to target for Kyoto compliance will now be between 1.3 million and 1.8 million tonnes per annum over the 2008-12 period. Deputies will be aware that the distance to target is the gap which must be bridged by further measures or by Government purchases of credits under the flexible mechanisms of the Kyoto protocol. It is now clear that the deterioration in the short-term macro-economic outlook will exceed that scenario, thus even these latest greenhouse gas projections are already out of date. Some commentators have suggested that we may now achieve
Kyoto compliance without any recourse to carbon credits. Definitive judgment in this regard must be informed by further analysis by the EPA. In the meantime, I want to inform the House that I have asked the NTMA to put on hold its programme of carbon purchasing for the foreseeable future. Those purchases to which we are already committed should be certainly adequate to meet whatever need is likely to arise in the Kyoto period. Also, any surplus can be carried forward for use after 2012. Our climate change policy needs to look far beyond Kyoto compliance. It would be a profound misunderstanding of the realities of climate change to see these recent developments as a reason to ease off on our efforts to drive down emissions across the economy. Under the new EU climate package, we must by 2020 reduce our emissions by 20% from their 2005 level. We will have an even more ambitious target when there is a new global agreement on climate change. For this reason, side-by-side with the Government’s work to secure our economic recovery, we have maintained our focus on climate policy. The home insulation incentives announced recently will generate employment while reducing emissions from the sector. This has proved extremely popular with up to 94,000 households now registered. The smarter travel strategy provides the framework for a more sustainable transport future. We are placing a major emphasis on the role of green technology in our economic recovery. Last week’s signing of an agreement with Nissan and Renault is an important sign of our intent to exploit the potential of electric vehicles. Work is continuing, under the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security, on the development of further measures. Every crisis must be turned into an opportunity. Our response to this crisis must be to ensure that when economic growth resumes it will be on a low-carbon trajectory. Not everything is about how much we spend on this service or that project. We must also look at the way we do things to ensure we are effective and sharply focused in the right direction.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: Money is scarce.
Deputy John Gormley: We must ensure our policies are well grounded and targeted to new realities and that those who must operate within these policy spheres can do so with the minimum of regulation. There have been numerous calls for better planning regulation. I am happy to inform the House that I will act to streamline the planning system through a new planning and development (amendment) Bill which I hope to publish shortly. My primary aim is achieve a greater coherence between the national spatial strategy, regional planning guidelines and development and local area plans, in particular in so far as the zoning of land is concerned, to secure a better return from our investment on infrastructure.
I will also take this opportunity to modernise the foreshore consent process and the legislation underpinning it to provide for an accelerated timeline for the granting of licences that will facilitate the achievement of high renewable energy targets. I refer to the target of achieving 40% by 2020, for example. This will be an important step forward. The key objective will be to offer a better service to all stakeholders, including Government infrastructure providers, State bodies and the public, through a model that fully integrates and streamlines estate management on the State-owned foreshore with the strategic planning consent process. I am examining a range of measures to support a speedier planning appeals process. I am exploring the possibility of allowing the larger local authorities in the
Dublin region to act on an agency basis when preparing reports for An Bord Pleanála appeals. That would help the board to deal more speedily with the backlog of cases that are currently before it. I will also allow the board’s quorum to be reduced from three to two for routine cases. The measures I am taking in the planning area will be welcomed by everyone involved. In a time of recession and belt-tightening, it is more important than ever to look to the future. We need to plan effectively and strategically if we are to do what we can, individually and collectively, to grasp the opportunities and build on the advantages at our disposal. An Economic and Social Research Institute report that was published last month, Macroeconomic Context for a Sustainable Recovery, signalled that the economy will continue to need a high level of public investment in infrastructure over the coming decade. If we are to optimise the resources available to us, investment must be clearly co-ordinated and prioritised in locations with the potential to drive regional and national competitiveness and the capacity to grow. The national spatial strategy must remain the principal basis for this. This view is shared by the National Competitiveness Council and the National Economic and Social Council, both of which acknowledge that strong cities act as economic engines to drive growth and enhance regional and national competitiveness. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is finalising a review and update of the national spatial strategy. It is assessing how the strategy is being implemented. The review will underline the key infrastructural and organisational priorities that are necessary if we are to improve our national competitiveness, contribute to economic renewal and support future economic development. Some €500 million is being provided for water services infrastructure this year. Even in adverse economic times, that represents an increase of 2% on the 2008 outturn. This provision reflects the Government’s ongoing commitment to preserving and protecting our water resources as a key element of environmental policy, meeting EU standards for drinking water and waste water treatment and putting critical infrastructure in place that will ensure ongoing support for industrial, commercial and other development. Investment under the water services programme will support over 4,000 jobs in the construction sector this year. It will support many additional jobs in manufacturing and in operating and maintaining the new infrastructure. We are determined to maintain and build on the good progress that has been made with the water services programme in recent years. Some 150 schemes are in progress and we expect 40 of them to be completed this year. We are planning to start at least as many new schemes later in the year. Momentum will be maintained on the delivery of priority projects. The tighter economic situation that now prevails means we must redouble our efforts to ensure that key environmental and economic objectives are delivered. We will benefit considerably from the more competitive tender pricing that is being obtained in the current operating environment. There is an ongoing need to expand and improve our water and waste water treatment capacity so that environmental standards can be attained. Improvements are needed to anticipate future economic and social development needs and align investment decisions with other national priorities within the framework of the national spatial strategy. Water services investment will be at the core of future economic development. I attach considerable importance to the future direction of investment in this area. Therefore, I have asked my Department to undertake a review of the priority rating of all new projects over the coming months. This will form the basis for the next phase of the water services investment programme. While I reiterate that the Government will maintain a strong level of investment in water services, I emphasise that critical assessment criteria will single out the highest priority projects for future investment. Allocations amounting to €100 million have been notified to local authorities under the rural water programme for 2009. The ongoing work under the programme will see compliance with national drinking water standards in group water scheme households rise to 98% by the end of the year, compared to 95% at the end of 2008. This programme has made huge inroads in improving rural water supplies across the country. It deserves due recognition for its practical achievements in recent years. It has improved the water supply quality of many rural communities. Many Deputies will be familiar with the extent of progress under this programme. I am happy to recognise this achievement. The Government is determined to build on the success of recent years, when a great deal was achieved in the water services sector. The level of compliance with the requirements of the EU urban waste water treatment directive on secondary waste water treatment facilities now stands at 92%, compared to 25% at the start of 2000. In the intervening period, some 442 water and waste water schemes have been completed, delivering an increase in waste water treatment capacity that is equivalent to meeting the needs of 3.2 million people. Water treatment capacity has increased by 838,000 over the same period. The Government’s commitment to housing is well established. In the more accommodating budgetary environment of recent years, substantial resources were invested in the broad spectrum of social and affordable housing measures and a range of improvement and regeneration programmes. We used those resources well. Record levels of activity were achieved last year. The needs of 19,500 households were met through the full range of social and affordable housing programmes. As is the case in many other areas of activity, the record levels of resources that were available in previous years are not available for 2009 and will not be available for a number of years. We must make significant adjustments across a range of housing programmes. Most importantly, over €1.4 billion will be available to us for housing in 2009. That is a significant level of investment at any time. It is crucial that we deploy such resources in as flexible and imaginative a manner as possible so that we achieve the optimum outcomes in terms of meeting housing needs.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: The Minister is cutting €200 million from the budget.
Deputy John Gormley: We will focus on a number of specific objectives.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: The Minister should tell us about the €200 million he is cutting from the social housing budget.
Deputy Dick Roche: It is much less than the amount that would have to be cut to meet the cost of Fine Gael’s plans.
Deputy John Gormley: While we recognise that the pool of resources available to us has reduced, we will continue to prioritise activities that focus on meeting the needs of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: We are still waiting.
Deputy Dick Roche: So are we.
Deputy John Gormley: We intend to make the most significant adjustments in areas where we believe the changed housing market environment provides the greatest opportunity for new and flexible approaches to programme delivery. This will allow us to lessen the impact of our more constrained resource environment to a greater extent than would otherwise be possible. The roll-out of the new long-term leasing initiative for social housing is a prime example of this. It will allow us to match social housing need with the increased availability of good quality homes on the market. The Government recognises the significant labour intensity of particular programmes and their capacity for maintaining and supporting employment and yielding a significant environmental dividend. To the greatest extent possible, we reflect social and employment considerations in our ongoing commitment to regeneration and remedial works projects.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: Will the Minister commit to the regeneration project in Limerick? What effect will the €200 million cuts have on that project?
Deputy John Gormley: This includes a number of energy efficiency measures targeted towards improving performance in the social housing stock and a number of regeneration programmes that will continue to be driven by an ambitious agenda of social, economic and physical renewal.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: Will the Minister give a commitment to provide money for the regeneration of
Deputy Róisín Shortall: What about Ballymun?
Deputy John Gormley: Looking beyond 2009, there will be a continued need for further flexibility and imagination in how we meet housing needs.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: This is waffle.
An Ceann Comhairle: I ask the Deputy not to intervene.
Deputy John Gormley: In delivering its social housing policy, my Department will work in close co-operation with our partners in the local authorities and the voluntary and co-operative housing sector. I published the Green Paper on Local Government Reform in April 2008. Other changes have informed our approach to policy development since then. A significant shift was prompted by the publication of the OECD’s review of the Irish public service and the report of the task force on the public service, Transforming Public Services. The Government recognises that local government must have a stronger and more meaningful role in public sector activity at local level. The economic challenge and the work of the Commission on Taxation are clearly of direct relevance to the future of local government. The forthcoming White Paper will reflect these developments. Since the beginning of this process, my goal has been to strengthen local democracy. This objective is now more pressing than ever. A local government system with stronger democratic leadership at its heart will be an essential element in assisting local authorities to take local initiatives to respond to economic recovery and, where possible, drive and lead local development to hasten that recovery. I am finalising the content of the White Paper on local government for Government consideration and subsequent publication.It is my intention to see a stronger, more vibrant and more accountable form of local government at the end of this process. The local government sector alone is responsible for a total spend of some €12 billion this year and with its democratic mandate and broad range of responsibilities the sector is pivotal in promoting and facilitating economic development at local level. Like all sectors, local councils are facing significant financial challenges resulting from the economic downturn and are acutely aware of the importance of mitigating costs borne by business in the present climate. At the end of last year, I urged all local authorities to exercise restraint in setting any increases in commercial rates in their 2009 budgets in order to support competitiveness in the economy, nationally and locally, and to protect the interests of communities. Local authorities have responded positively, and the national average increase in annual rates on valuation is limited to 1.15%. In addition, I have written recently to local authority managers in respect of the contribution that can be made by local authorities to the maximisation of economic activity and employment at local level. In particular, I asked them to strengthen business support structures to facilitate local business initiatives and developments, with speed and flexibility in the current difficult operating environment. The local government fund will receive an Exchequer contribution of €417 million in 2009, together with the proceeds of motor taxation of some €1,040 million. Although the income from these sources is reduced from what was available in 2008, it will be supplemented by the pension-related deduction, estimated at €80 million, which local authorities will retain. Deputies will also recall that the Government decided in the last October’s budget to broaden the revenue base of local authorities by the introduction of an annual charge of €200 on non-principal private residences. Good progress has been made with the drafting of the legislation necessary to underpin this charge, and I expect to be in a position to bring it before the House shortly after Easter. The Government remains committed to implementing the charge in order to realise a revenue yield projected at €40 million in the current year. This will be retained by the local authorities which collect it. Local authorities are gearing up to implement the charge, and payment will be accepted electronically through a website being developed by the local government computer services board. It is particularly important now for everyone in the local government sector to work together to ensure that we achieve value for money. Although it is clear that local authorities have made significant strides over recent years in pursuing efficiency and value for money in their operations, there will always be scope to obtain better value. I look to management and elected members alike to continue to pursue the efficiency agenda in conjunction with their business and other partners through the improved governance structures that have been put in place in recent times. The Environmental Protection Agency received a significant increase of over 40% in funding from the Exchequer in 2008. The reduction in the 2009 allocation reflects the fact that work on the construction of the agency’s new headquarters building has progressed well and will require less capital expenditure this year. Like all public bodies, the EPA will need to seek further efficiencies and reduce costs in the year ahead. Nonetheless, I am satisfied that the 2009 provision for the agency will enable it to continue to carry out its important environmental functions. The allocation to the built heritage still represents a significant investment in the conservation and protection of our rich heritage resource. This will allow for financial support to be provided for the various schemes even though at some reduction. I am conscious of the value of this support in terms of employment in the conservation sector, regeneration of our historic buildings and the contribution to sustainability and tourism. My Department will also continue with the national inventory of architectural heritage, its architectural advice series booklets and the World Heritage programme. With regard to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the reduction in available resources will necessitate a sharp focus on the priority objectives we have set ourselves in nature conservation, as well as honouring declared and statutory commitments. I will give priority to ensuring that we meet our obligations under the EU directives on birds and habitats. Concerning the protection of raised bogs, which are designated as special areas of conservation, SAC, we will do all we can to achieve the protection of these sensitive habitats. A new working group will report back to me as a matter of urgency on how to acquire management control of these peatlands and how to address the financial resource implications in 2010 and beyond. It is well recognised that our national parks are a much valued and utilised resource both for the national population and for tourists. The NPWS will strive to ensure that these facilities continue to attract visitors and it will provide the highest level of visitor facilities possible within the current financial and staffing restrictions. In making the hard choices required in the current economic circumstances, the 2009 Supplementary Budget Statement was prepared in a responsible way. It will protect environmental and economic sustainability while protecting the most vulnerable of our society. The choices have been hard but the Government is resolute in its determination to put our public finances on a sound footing for the good of the country and our future prosperity. My party’s involvement in Government is to the public good. We are in Government to achieve the policies for which we stand. The Green Party has clearly demonstrated its capability in Government of facing up to huge challenges whose likes have not been seen for generations. I and my colleagues are firmly committed to securing our policies into the future.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: With the agreement of the House, I wish to share my time with Deputies Jack Wall and Mary Upton.
An Ceann Comhairle: That is agreed.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: I say to the Minister, Deputy Gormley, that for somebody who could not get himself out of bed on that fateful night last September when the Government decided to bail out the banks, he has a brass neck to come into the House and boast about his record in Government, particularly when one considers that this country is in the throes of the worst recession in the history of the State. The economy has been brought to the brink of collapse.
Deputy John Gormley: The Deputy is talking nonsense.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: I remember the comments of the Minister and those of his colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan last October. He stated he was very proud of the budget that hit the pensioners. Last night the Ministers’ colleague, Deputy Mary White, spoke of how the Supplementary budget was a wonderful one that had the fingerprints of the Green Party all over it. This shows how out of touch the Green Party is with the real world. The Minister is other-worldly. That is the best way of describing it. He is out of touch and in time he will discover that he will pay a serious price for that.
Deputy John Gormley: The Deputy should look at the record and contrast it with that of her own party.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: Over the past weeks and months we all have had to endure a significant campaign of spin by this Government concerning what it proposed to do in this budget. The main thrust of the spin was that we were all in this situation together and that everybody must pay, from top to bottom. The Government was at this from two months out when it began to brief all the political correspondents to the effect that 40% of people did not pay any tax and, on grounds of fairness, these people must be brought into the tax net. By and large, most of the political correspondents fell for the notion that there were 40% outside the tax net.
Deputy Dick Roche: That was a fact.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: The reason 40% were outside the tax net is that so many of them are on incredibly low incomes. That 40% includes over 100,000 pensioners, for example.
Deputy Dick Roche: We have the second highest minimum wage in
Deputy Róisín Shortall: It includes large numbers who are accurately described as being the “working poor”. These are people who are working in minimum waged jobs and are really struggling to keep their heads above water. It includes the many thousands of people who are dependent on welfare who are just about getting by. It is outrageous to say to these people that somehow it is their fault the economy is in a mess and they must pay while at the same time we continue to see significant numbers of people getting away with paying little or no tax. Is the Minister, Deputy Gormley, proud that the Government of which he is part, has done nothing to tackle the problem of tax exiles? Is he proud that nothing has been done—–
Deputy John Gormley: We did do so, more than the Deputy’s party did. That is nonsense.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: —–about the considerable tax relief on pension schemes for high rollers? What about all the property-based tax relief schemes?
Deputy John Gormley: The Deputy’s party let them get away with the “Cinderella” clause.
An Ceann Comhairle: The same rules apply to the Minister as apply to others when they heckle him, if he gets my drift.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: The Minister should not talk to us about fairness. He does not understand the meaning of the word. This Government speaks in the House about hitting people who are earning €20,000. It claims that this is fair while it lets high-rollers off with paying little or no tax. It is just outrageous. The public has not bought that, for all that the Government’s spin machines were in action over recent weeks.