A spokesman for the Taoiseach has said Brian Cowen regrets any offence caused by remarks picked up on the Dáil microphones after Leaders Questions this morning.

Mr Cowen was heard using a profanity in what the spokesman said was a casual exchange between working colleagues that was not a reference to any member of the house.

After angry exchanges over health Mr Cowen had been questioned by Labour's Eamon Gilmore on price increases and what he said had been the failure of the National Consumer Agency and other bodies to act.

RTÉ News understands that what the Taoiseach said to Ms Coughlan was: 'We need to get a handle on this, will you ring those f***ers.'

That was a reference to the relevant officials rather than the opposition.

Fine Gael criticised the Taoiseach for using unparliamentary language towards the Opposition, but RTÉ News understands Mr Cowen was not referring to Fine Gael.

The party had just been involved in angry exchanges over health spending.

Fine Gael's Dan Neville cited the remarks in a statement, claiming Mr Cowen had displayed his intolerance for the difficult questions which his party had been putting to him on health spending.

He claimed the Taoiseach had lost it and his use of the f-word referred to Fine Gael.

A Government spokesman earlier confirmed the microphones had picked up what he said was 'a private exchange that was not on the Dáil record.'