Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 4 December 2019
Committee on Budgetary Oversight
Fiscal Assessment Report: Irish Fiscal Advisory Council
I thank Mr. Coffey and his staff for the presentation. It is somewhat ironic to think that at the time of the last financial crash and crisis, notwithstanding the worldwide scale of it or the overdependency of our economy on property related revenues, we had a National Pensions Reserve Fund with €26 billion in it. We were glad to have it considering the mammoth task that faced the country thereafter.
Fast-forward to today and we are told that everything is being managed. We have fiscal rules. We are told that the economy is managed prudently. We have the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council in place to advise and ensure we do not find ourselves at a similar crossroads again in the future. We have no rainy day fund and yet people ask what we have learned. We would be worse off now if we were impacted with anything of that magnitude than we were then. We have not learned a whole lot, have we? Windfall taxes are being used to plug holes rather than being put into the National Pensions Reserve Fund or the rainy day fund, which is not too prudent. Despite all those who were pontificating for so long, we have not got very far, which is quite alarming when it is brought down to brass tacks.
The commentary in the IFAC report on health spending overruns is rightly quite damning. Others have been saying we have had dishonest budgets in the form of the health Vote in recent years. It needs to be repeated, if we are to learn anything. When I talk about health overruns, I should qualify it. The benefit of that spending is not evident to the public, including those I represent. They get quite annoyed to hear talk of health overruns because it cannot be seen on the ground. There have been no new home care packages in County Offaly since last June except for a few terminal cases. I am part of a team that seeks to make advances in that area and tries to target funding specifically at certain areas in the health budget, which is not necessarily possible in the context of framing a budget because it is something that is agreed between the Health Service Executive and the Department of Health, and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform thereafter.
People see the closed wards, the waiting lists, the issues with rural doctors and the loss of out-of-hours doctor service in country areas. Mr. Coffey has said that in the last few years of weak planning and spending control, budget allocations have not been seen as credible by health managers. Why is that? Have we learned anything? For example, we hear that a budgetary process provides for an increase in allocation to the Department of Health. We would expect improvements, but we do not get improvements. The increased allocation is just to stand still.
Even in its effort to stand still we realise that the demographics were all wrong this year. It was €60 million out in the space of a few weeks. That €60 million could provide 1,200 primary schoolteachers, 2 million home help hours or 240 social houses. That €60 million might not be much in the context of a €3 billion budget. It might not be much to economists and experts who study this field every day of the week. However, it is a considerable amount to a family who cannot get a package for a disabled family member or to an elderly person who cannot come home and live in their own house or be in their own community.
Mr. Coffey has stated categorically that health is a big problem in the budgetary process. I and others have been saying it is not having the desired effect.
As I said earlier, we are ten years on from that supposedly and improvements had to be made in all those institutions and insulations were put in place to ensure we never arrived at that crossroads again but we are worse off. That is the truth of the matter.