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Snippet Contents:

Much has been said in recent months and years about the Government's ability to deliver on the promises and commitments made before the general election. I intend to deal with these commitments in a general manner.
Looking back to where we were four years ago, the Government's central commitment to the electorate was that it would restore the economy and return people to work. All of the other commitments, while important in their own right, could not even be contemplated if, as a nation, we continued to be in a state of bankruptcy. Let us not forget that the country was bankrupt four years ago and most political commentators and Opposition parties and all Independent Members doubted whether the Government could deliver on its agenda. The facts are now clear and our central commitment and policy plan are being delivered. There is no doubt, however, that this enormous task has been painful for the Government and, in particular, the people.
Work to complete some of the tasks we set ourselves, for example, the introduction of water charges, is still in progress. As all Deputies are aware, water charges are proving to be a difficult issue. The Government has given a commitment to clarify and address concerns about the charges in the coming weeks.
Most targets have been successfully met through difficult Government decisions aimed at saving and raising money. The embargo on public sector recruitment, by necessity, remains largely in force. While the embargo was a difficult decision for the Government to implement, it has been even more difficult for the thousands of public servants who maintained services through difficult times.
The complete reform of local government resulted in the abolition of town councils and a reduction in the size of our regional administration to make it more appropriate and affordable for the country. In this context, I often question the accusations of cronyism that continue to be made, given that Fine Gael, the largest party in local government, reduced the number of its public representatives by one third in a ruthless but necessary measure.
The property tax has been introduced as a part of a necessary effort to broaden the tax net. Property taxes are generally regarded internationally, including by most observers and politicians, as a fair component of the tax structure. The exception are Ireland's left-wing politicians whose brand of social values appears to differ from that of their counterparts in the rest of Europe, the reason being that it confers political advantage.
The universal social charge which hit every employed and retired citizen very hard had to be imposed by the previous Administration as a result of its poor management of the economy. The budget shows that the economic growth we are experiencing will deliver small returns to people at an individual level and ease their fears of further austerity in the period ahead. The current level of economic growth also gives enormous hope for the future.
Despite serious difficulties during its term of office, the Government has maintained basic social welfare rates. No other country in Europe that experienced similar difficulties managed to achieve this outcome. With a growing economy, social welfare benefits can be improved gradually, as shown by the restoration of the Christmas bonus at 25% of its previous rate.
The policies pursued by the Government quickly restored confidence in Ireland among our European partners and the financial markets. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, showed a steady and reliable hand in guiding the economy and renegotiating the agreement on the promissory notes, as well as our repayment schedule and interest rates. At the same time, he injected confidence into the economy, with the ultimate aim of creating jobs. His approach is working. As he stated, the number of people in employment has increased by more than 70,000. Furthermore, we have learned today that unemployment has fallen to 11% and the Government is on course to achieve its target of having 2 million people working in the economy by 2016.
Despite the general consensus that the Government would not achieve the fiscal targets set by the troika, forecasts suggest the deficit for 2014 will be 3.7% of GDP, well inside the original deficit target. While we all accept that our debt is still too high, the actions taken by the Government have created confidence in the economy in the financial markets. The Minister is reducing the taxation burden by refinancing our debt through new loans, with interest rates of well under 3%. Ireland's ten year sovereign bond yields have reached record lows and now trade at less than 2%.
Since taking office, the Government has provided vital supports for indigenous industry, including the jobs initiative for the tourism industry, tax reforms for small and medium-sized enterprises and measures such as the home renovation incentive for the construction industry. Its general handling of the economy and skilful approach to our corporation tax regime ensure foreign direct investment will remain a cornerstone of economic development in the future. The certainty the Government has provided on this issue will ensure this investment will continue to increase.
As I stated, the core commitment we gave at the general election was to restore confidence in the economy and return people to work. The Government is dedicated to continuing to set the economy on a sustainable growth pattern. Now that the economy is doing well, political pundits and Opposition parties are honing in on other issues. They should remember that, in addition to economic success, the Government has delivered complete reform of local government. Our commitment to let the people decide on the future of the Seanad was honourable. The restrictions in the Freedom of Information Act have been reversed. Appointment to State boards will be made on the basis of recommendations made by a Civil Service commission. Most importantly, a quota regime has been introduced to ensure more women will stand for election and, I hope, be elected in the future. I commend the Bill to the House.