Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 30 November 2016
Committee on Budgetary Oversight
Post-Budget Analysis: National Women's Council and Social Justice Ireland
We are now in public session. I remind everybody to switch off their mobile phones because they interfere with the recording and transmission of the proceedings. I welcome Ms Orla O'Connor and Ms Eilís Ní Chaithnía from the National Women's Council and Dr. Seán Healy and Ms Michelle Murphy from Social Justice Ireland. Today's meeting is part of the committee's post-budget analysis of budget 2017. The witnesses have also been asked to provide a look ahead to budget 2018, including the measures and proposals they believe could be introduced that would have a positive impact in the areas of gender equality and poverty in particular. This is a new committee and it is only now that we are in a position to go into more depth in terms of oversight of budgetary matters and input from bodies such as the National Women's Council and Social Justice Ireland are important in that regard. It is likely that we will have ongoing engagement with both organisations, especially as we engage with those who are policy-proofing budget proposals.
I wish to draw attention to the fact that witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I now invite Ms O'Connor to make her opening statement.
Ms Orla O'Connor:
On behalf of the National Women's Council I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak here today. As members know, the council is the leading national membership organisation for women in Ireland. We are a feminist organisation and we seek full equality for women in Ireland. We welcome the invitation to meet the committee today and we also welcome the establishment of the budgetary oversight committee because it provides an important opportunity for greater Oireachtas oversight of and input to the budgetary process.
We commend the commitment in the programme for partnership Government to devote two thirds of budgetary spending on public investment as against one third on tax measures and acknowledge the fulfilment of that commitment in budget 2017. We recognise the pressures on Government in terms of bringing together the budget but our main comments on budget 2017 will focus on issues of taxation, child care, income, pensions and gender and equality budgeting.
We believe that the tax concessions in budget 2017, such as the reduction in the universal social charge, USC, and the increased thresholds for capital acquisitions tax, CAT, do not represent a strategic use of hard-earned public funds. Budget 2017 gave us an opportunity to discontinue marginal tax reliefs on pensions, for example, but this did not happen. The opportunity to redress some of the inequities in our taxation system was not taken.
On a positive note, the National Women's Council really welcomes the introduction of the single affordable child care scheme. This is a really important measure. The council has long campaigned for the introduction of publicly subsidised universal child care and the single affordable child care scheme represents a good start. However, I must emphasise that it is only a start. It is similar to many models of child care in other European countries for which we have advocated. The lack of child care in Ireland is still one of the most significant barriers to women's participation in society, including in employment, civic and political life. We welcome the fact that there is a universal element within the child care subsidy so that all families can benefit. This recognises that all families have child care needs which is critical. We also welcome the fact that payments will be made directly to the service providers. This is very important in the context of ensuring that State funding is linked directly to quality service provision. That said, it is critically important that providers of child care do not increase their costs. There are some gaps in the scheme and we will be working with the Department to improve it before it is rolled out next September. One of the issues to be addressed is the capping of child care costs so that prices are not increased, thus making child care less affordable for parents.
The council recommended, prior to budget 2017, that the minimum wage be increased to what is called the living wage, that is, to €11.50 per hour. This did not happen but it remains the council's recommendation in the context of the next budget. A number of issues arise with regard to social welfare but I wish to focus on pensions in particular. Pensions are a critical issue for women in Ireland because of the inequities within the system. The gender pension gap has widened and now stands at 37%. While we welcome the increase of €5 in pension payments we firmly believe, based on our international research and on consulting widely with women, that a universal pension is the best way to support equality in older age. We recommend that this committee makes this a priority over the next year and we will also be saying the same to the Department of Social Protection. This has been a long standing call of the National Women's Council of Ireland. Currently 84% of those receiving a full State contributory pension are men. While this payment was protected during the recession, the reduced rate payments on which a majority of women rely have been steadily eroded. The fact that only 16% of women receive the full contributory rate reflects both the legacy of the marriage bar and a system poorly designed to support individual entitlement or to recognise care. Rather than addressing these inequalities, the State has allowed them to deepen in recent years by increasing contributory thresholds and making it harder for women to access a full contributory pension. This is a critical issue for women because of the legacy issues already mentioned and also in terms of how we deal with it going forward. Currently we are not assisting women to access pensions but are making it harder for them.
The final issue I wish to deal with is gender and equality budgeting, which goes to the heart of equality for women and to the heart of our budgetary process. In looking to budget 2018 and beyond, the council wishes to offer its support to this committee to embed a process of gender and equality budgeting that would be in line with the Government’s commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government.
These are commitments we welcomed. We believe these new mechanisms must be meaningfully developed and delivered. This is not a tick box exercise. Gender budgeting, if implemented effectively, has the potential to address structural economic inequalities for women and to allow the Government to assess the extent to which provisions made to improve the lives of women and men are achieving their intended impact. We have also received funding from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission to support the work on gender budgeting and we want to work with the committee to do that.
Having listened to the address of the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, in the Seanad yesterday, it is appropriate to point out that we have a good deal to learn from Scotland on gender budgeting, which was discussed yesterday. The fact that in Scotland they produce an annual budget equality statement is a positive step and it is one that could be taken up in an Irish context. We ask that in budget 2018 a similar statement would be produced that would accompany the budget, which would be the start of a process in assessing budgetary demands from different Departments before they are implemented and, similarly, when the budget is produced that it would be done after that process. A before and after process in that respect is critical to having a proper gender budgeting process.
We thank the committee once again for this opportunity to present our views and we are happy to answer any questions on our submission that members may have.
I thank Ms O'Connor for that. I will take questions after both presentations have been made. Members can then fire questions at will but not quite in that they will have to go through the Chair. I call on Dr. Healy to make his presentation.
Dr. Seán Healy:
We in Social Justice Ireland also welcome the invitation from the committee to be here today. We welcome the establishment of the committee and we believe the work it is doing is very important in shaping the future. We have already submitted a 24-page analysis and critique of budget 2017 together with some ideas about the future. My introductory remarks are based on the fact that this document has been submitted, and we can tease it out as the members wish.
A number of the budgetary measures were welcome, including the increases in welfare rates and the child care programme initiative. The tax changes could have been fairer, even if the Government was to insist on a third of the available fiscal space going on tax reductions. It could have done it in a much more fair way. For exactly the same amount of money, €383 million, it could have made tax credits refundable, thus tackling the work poor issue and giving every person with a job a tax credit of €100. That would have been a fairer way to proceed.
The long-range issues Ireland is facing were mentioned in the Budget Statement announced by the Minister for Finance but were not taken up in any substantial way. They include issues such as climate change and the funding of education particularly at third level which is becoming pretty difficult and challenging. There is also the issue of our changing demographics. Ireland will have a million people over the age of 65 by 2031, which is only 15 years away, and, of that, 136,000 will be over the age of 85, which is an increase of 132% on the current situation. We know that will happen and should be planning for it now rather than leaving it until later. There are other challenges around financing local government, repairing and modernising our water infrastructure, paying our rising European Union contribution, funding pollution-reducing environmental initiatives, the issue of what is required by European international agreements and the need to invest in the building of the rural broadband infrastructure. Those are some of the long-range issues which have huge implications and which require serious investment but which were not sufficiently addressed in this budget and need to be on the agenda as we go forward.
We have an issue around the coherence of decisions taken in the budget. For example, in the decisions made on housing, there is a lack of coherence on two fronts. While there is a plan in place, which is welcome and which we fully acknowledge it is the biggest plan put in place for a long time, we would point out that it is planned to build 47,000 new units by 2021 when currently, according to the Government's figures, 89,000 units are required for social housing. We will only get half way to achieving that but that does not account for any new need that will emerge from our rising population between now and 2021. That is one issue. Another issue is that we believe the assistance being granted to first-time buyers in budget 2017 is short-sighted and will not do anything to tackle the current cause of the problem, which is the lack of supply.
There is a similar lack of coherence, which has not been highlighted as much in the public arena, in the overall health care budget. The existing level of service together with the new initiatives that are planned to be delivered cannot be delivered for the money that has been allocated. Either some of the new commitments will not be delivered or some of the services being provided will have to be reduced if the budget is to come in on target. Our understanding is that this is the requirement now in the budgetary process, that there cannot be supplementary budgets and that next budget will be next December.
Another issue about which we are seriously concerned is the tax take. The level of revenue remains one of the lowest in the European Union as a percentage of GDP. The low tax model is not sustainable because in practice it means that Ireland does not have sufficient resources to provide the social and economic infrastructure that we require. Our infrastructure is below the European continental averages. It is not possible for us to build the additional infrastructure and maintain it and to do that on the social and infrastructural side generally while having this lower tax take as a very strong commitment. The issue is not about increasing income tax rather it is about widening the tax base, which is the essential prerequisite to increasing the country's total tax take in a fair manner.
Moving on from the tax issue but closely tied to it is the fact that greater public investment is required. The Government claimed that budget 2017 had been Brexit-proofed. What that involves is not very clear but I am convinced that the best way to Brexit-proof the Irish economy is to invest in the infrastructure that we desperately need. That is what is required. That would be good for the economy and for society. Budget 2017 does not address that.
We would also point to the fact that budget-proofing has been ignored. Nowhere else in this society or economy would one be allowed to spend a great deal of money without first having a very clear impact assessment. When organisations in the community and voluntary sector apply for even small amounts of money, they are always asked by the Department or the agency concerned what is their output and what will be the impact, but that question does not seem to have been asked in advance of the budget. It is something that happens afterwards and there is something fundamentally wrong with that.
Looking to the future, we need an integrated policy framework. There are five goals the Government needs to work for simultaneously because they are interdependent, intertwined and interconnected in a big way. We need to build a thriving economy, to move to have just taxation, to have decent services and infrastructure, to have good governance and to do it all in a sustainable manner. It is possible to do that in a serious way and to do it effectively. I am talking about good governance. We welcome very much the improved level of engagement of the Houses of Oireachtas in the budgetary process. We also believe there is a need to improve the transparency of the budget process in the years ahead and the commitment to do that in the programme for Government is very welcome.
We have been analysing and critiquing every budget since 1988. Today, we get less information than we used to get 20 years ago in the budget documentation available on budget night. Something is fundamentally wrong with that, especially in an era when we have all the modern technology, information and so on. Those affected are not only the people outside. It seems to us that Deputies and Senators should have access to all this information. There is far more information than they are getting at the moment.
I will suggest a checklist of things the committee might look at for the future. There is a need to address the issue of the fiscal rules. The rules were put in place as a political solution to an economic problem and they will be changed eventually - I have no doubt whatsoever about that and I said as much years ago when the idea was being considered before it was put in place. We discussed this at the Oireachtas committee at the time and what we predicted has come to pass. We are now blocked from investing because of the rules. We are blocked from picking up the money we need to undertake investment, although interest rates are low. We need to substantially increase investment.
We need to expand the fiscal space as well. We do that principally by broadening the tax base and recognising that we need to do precisely that. We maintain that the full year cost of every change in budget 2018 should be available in the budget documentation when the budget is published. Such information was not in the documentation this year. There were 2017 numbers for 2017, but where taxation was concerned, in particular, the full year costs were not given. As a result, the answers to parliamentary questions since then have shown a substantially higher full-year cost for the tax changes introduced in the budget.
The tax and expenditure carryover should be made available from the beginning. It is not there. The independent budget office should be appropriately staffed. This is critical. We would be concerned if the Oireachtas decided to farm out that work. We believe the Oireachtas needs its own office, properly staffed, to do the new job of budgetary oversight required. We are strongly of the view that this should be done.
Everyone should have access to analytical models. For example, one model gets used a good deal and, although it was paid for 100% by the taxpayer, most people are not given access to it. The organisation using it is able to make a good deal of money on it. I am referring to the simulating welfare and income tax changes model in the ESRI. I am not suggesting people should not use the SWITCH model. However, if it is used, others should have access to it aside from ESRI staff. All manner of assumptions and issues around modelling arise. I am keen to see what the models are based on. I suspect that many people around the Houses would also like to see these details. Any models being used in the analysis, whether macroeconomic models or models like SWITCH for analysing welfare and so on, should be accessible and available to everyone.
Probably the most important thing that needs to be noted for the future is the point that unless we increase our overall tax take in a fair way - I am not emphasising income tax and I am making these qualifications specifically - we will not provide the infrastructure and social services for which Irish people have clearly indicated a preference. Moreover, we will certainly not get anywhere close to the European continental average, especially the EU 15 average, which is where most Irish people believe we should be.
I thank the committee for the engagement. Ms Murphy and I are perfectly happy to answer questions or elaborate on anything members may want us to address.
I thank both groups for coming in. The groups focused on demographics and pension planning. I thought there was something of a contradiction in what Ms O'Connor said, and I trust she does not mind my querying it. She criticised retaining the pension reliefs as part of the taxation package. Yet, she pointed out the pension problem that we are going to have which will affect women and everyone in society. Should the solution to that problem be totally Government focused? Should people have a role in it?
What would a gender-proofed budget look like? How different would 2017 have been if the budget had gone through the gender budgeting process referred to by Ms O'Connor? Perhaps Ms O'Connor may wish to come back to us with correspondence on that question.
I am intrigued by the comment from Dr. Healy to the effect that more information was available in 1988 than is available today. That is an interesting benchmark for the committee to reflect on and set. Can Dr. Healy give us an idea of what the 1988 budget looked like? Again, this may require further correspondence. I do not imagine anyone in the room was here at that stage, although I am unsure about the clerk. How did the presentation look then compared to now? What information and accessibility has been lost in the meantime? That could be an interesting benchmark for us to set for the new budget office as those involved assume office next year.
Ms Orla O'Connor:
I will address the first question on the pension issue. What we are saying is not contradictory in respect of pension tax reliefs. The National Women's Council of Ireland is recommending a universal pension. This would be a pension available for everyone that would come from the State. That should be the priority. Let us consider what other countries do as well as the needs of women. Once we start putting in contribution requirements, we are immediately discriminating against people who spend time out to care. That is what is happening. We have a system of homemaker credits but they are rather limited. That is one of the reasons we are calling for a universal pension as a model. Then, if there is to be a second tier, it should be done through the PRSI system. No private model of pensions recognises time out of work. That should not be the case. The system should be equal for men and women but it is not at the moment. At the moment the career patterns of women end up changing significantly because of care responsibilities. No private pension model is going to accommodate that. When we look at the spend on pensions, we need to look at the income forgone on tax reliefs. If the tax forgone was invested in a universal pension, then we would have a far more equitable pension model.
A question was asked about the difference gender budgeting would make. Let us consider the Scottish model. Gender budgeting is a process all year round that involves consulting women's organisation and involves them in the process all the way through. It also looks at the individual requests from various Departments and what the various impacts on women could be. For example, let us consider the Department of Social Protection. We would be considering factors such as the issues around lone parents. If a gender budgeting process had been undertaken for this budget, the Government would probably have prioritised lone parents, because they were a particular group that experienced the most in cutbacks. Issues such as the disregard for lone parents and how to make it easier for lone parents to move into employment are critical. That is only one example. The child care scheme would probably have come out well under gender-proofing.
Let us consider the Scottish model again. As well as looking at individual Departments, the idea is to look at the overall spend and the associated impact on women. Dr. Healy referred to the models we use in making a calculation. We need to come up with a model that can look at impacts on women across the board in terms of overall spend. That is part of the work we want to undertake with the committee. I suppose that is what I meant when I said that this is not a tick the box exercise. This can make a real difference to the lives of women.
Dr. Seán Healy:
Reference was made to the pensions question. We carried out a study, published in 2013, on how a universal pension could replace the old age pension at the level of the contributory old age pension. We used actuarial numbers produced for the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We costed it through to 2046 and we showed how it could be paid for. It can be done.
We have built in all the population increases, the changes in the pension age and all that sort of stuff. We have worked out exactly how a universal pension might be developed over the years and how it might be tied to growth in the consumer price index, economic growth and so on. The total net cost would be €140 million. It would have been funded partly by standard rating, not eliminating, the pension tax break that exists at the moment and a couple of other relatively small changes. We will publish a fully updated version of that study within a month so it will be available for the budget of 2018.
The second question was on budget information. I am delighted that Deputy Calleary picked up on the issue because we have tried to get people to hear about it for a while. We are of the view that if Deputies and Senators realise that they used to be provided with a lot more information then they might be interested in chasing it. Let me give an example. For the first time in my life GNP was not mentioned in the budget documentation this year. That is extraordinary. Our organisation has been berated for years for using GDP. The reason we used GDP was for international comparisons. We always put in GNP for the total tax take and various other pieces such as how one counts overseas development aid. We always got dog's abuse for using GDP, with the point being we should always use GNP, but the Government's budget document does not contain a single reference to GNP, which I find extraordinary. There are issues about why that has happened and they must be pursued.
Let me give another example. The full-year costs were always given. In a normal budget one would get the actual proposal, one would get a column that said the cost for this budget period, which is 2017 in this case, and a full-year cost. Some things are full year cost in year one but a lot of stuff is not full-year cost in year one. Welfare changes can happen later in the year. A whole lot of other stuff and even some of the proposed tax changes are not in place for a full year in 2017.
Let me outline a third issue in overall terms. The budget has been laid out in a slightly different way. The document went through budget initiatives Department by Department or budget heading by budget heading. Let us take health as an example. It said we are going to increase the budget in health by X and it then showed where that budget was broken down. At this moment we are not getting that. What we are getting is the budget will be increased by this, and we are going to send that to the HSE, which will come back to us with a service plan that will implement all of the existing level of service plus these three or five new initiatives we have proposed. My point is there is no basis for it. I have pointed at health because we are quite sure that the numbers are wrong in health and we have said so already. By the way, we have said it before and were right each time, particularly about the health budget. I am saying it again and we can give more information if people are interested.
Before Ms O'Connor leaves I thank her for her presentation. I agree with the broad thrust of the excellent analysis from both the National Women's Council and Social Justice Ireland.
Dr. Healy touched on a good point that was picked up by Deputy Calleary. I hope it is a matter that the committee will consider. It is extremely frustrating what happened this year and even last year. Some of the presentation of the budget document changes every year and, therefore, is difficult to follow. This term we are well used at analysing the fiscal space, how much is available and where it is but one cannot find it in the document without the expertise or help of the general secretaries of the Departments, who very much engage with us but that is after the fact. A lot of this is about controlling the narrative. This is the first year that the full-year effects were not produced. I believe it was a political stroke because it would have made it very clear on budget day that not only was the Government committing the 2017 budget but more than half of the 2018 budget. We raised this matter a number of weeks ago and the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has amplified it today. The numbers should have been made available. I hope that the committee can do something in respect of this type of work.
I would welcome the updated paper on pensions. The issue has been raised by the National Women's Council as well. I ask Social Justice Ireland to submit the updated paper to this committee for consideration.
I shall start with the pensions issue and the statistics. One proposal that we included in our alternative budget this year was on the discrimination between the pension system. We proposed that the pension band rates be returned to their pre-September 2012 position because women, in particular, were discriminated against because of yearly average contributions and would be on a lower rate as a result of the changes in 2012. I wish to say to the National Women's Council that the issue has gained no traction in the public domain. It is a terrible inequality that needs to be addressed. Simple issues are put forward such as, for example, that standardisation is bad because one will lose a few euro if one is getting a pension or paying into a pension in the first place. The rates, pension bands and what happened in 2012 has become very complex for people to understand. Earlier the council cited some staggering figures. It stated that 84% of people who receive a full State contributory pension are men. That fact needs to be put up in lights and stated repeatedly. I ask the National Women's Council to elaborate on the universality of pensions and, in the interim, to address some of the issues that took place in the past that would generate a direct benefit to females and access to full State contributory pensions.
Ms Eilís Ní Chaithnía:
In terms of the pension issue not being in the public light, the council agrees that despite much work on the matter over the years the issue has not been covered widely. We have been unable to secure media coverage in a large way although the situation is changing. Pensions have changed in the last budget. Although the changes that we hoped for were not made, the issue of pensions was discussed much more as it was at the national economic dialogue.
In recent weeks we were happy to receive a small sum of money from the Community Foundation for Ireland for an outreach programme that will span the country. We will primarily deal with women over the age of 65 to increase their knowledge of pensions. While they of course have their own personal experience of the disadvantages of the pension system, we will start to increase their knowledge of pensions by providing training, starting in Letterkenny and Killarney. We will increase the knowledge of these women and thus their capacity to lobby individually. We will start to engage them in our own lobbying activities. We hope that they will start to work at constituency level with their own representatives and local media to get this pension issue in the public eye. We, as an organisation, agree with the Deputy that this issue needs greater highlighting. Did the Deputy have a second question?
My party has been to the fore in trying to pursue and introduce the Scottish model in this House, along with others. We know that the new budgetary committee will consider the matter in some fashion. It is one of the things that we tried to do in the Finance Bill. We wanted equality budgeting, that would encompass gender budgeting, included in the Finance Bill. Unfortunately, it was impossible for us to do as we did not have the numbers. I encourage the National Women's Council to continue its call for equality budgeting to be introduced.
That would put the spotlight on some of the changes made in 2012 and how the move was predominantly anti-women which was really made under the radar. I compliment the National Women's Council of Ireland on its work in that regard.
On the gender pay gap, Sinn Féin took a position this year in calling for the removal of VAT from hotel bed costs. We did this because the hotel sector, particularly in Dublin, was thriving but also because we believed the record of the sector was quite poor on the issue of low pay. Does the National Women's Council of Ireland have any view on the low pay gap? Are there particular sectors in which the gender gap is wider or is it across the board?
Ms Eilís Ní Chaithnía:
On gender and equality budgeting, it is important to acknowledge that, from their responses to parliamentary questions, some Departments are starting to work on this issue. As we understand it, the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government has appointed an official to work with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, on the public sector duty. In starting to analyse its activities from an equality and human rights point of view it will start to bring up particular activities which will need greater resources. It is a good step, as is the step taken by the Department of Justice and Equality in considering with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform the best ways forward to develop skills across the Civil Service. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been looking at the issue of gender proofing and done a pretty good job for quite some time through its overseas aid programme. It is really strict on meeting requirements in ensuring gender equality is a key part of a programme being carried out. We do not want to underplay the fact that there is expertise in Departments to carry out this work. There is a step on which to build. We encourage the committee to start to scope out what has been done and build on it.
As we mentioned in our submission, the IHREC has just provided us with a sum of money. We will start to work with civic society to build its knowledge of it. We also intend to start to work with experts across Europe. I am a member of the executive committee of the European Women's Lobby. We have built great relationships with experts on gender budgeting. We will bring them together both to increase the National Women's Councils of Ireland's knowledge and expertise and also to bring that knowledge and expertise to committee members. We will be organising seminars and so on.
Our hope is we will identify a Department which will commit to working with us to create a demonstration project and put in place some of the recommendations with which we will come up. We will be conducting a research piece. If there are particular Departments the committee thinks would be a good place to start, we will be happy to hear about them. We will also be speaking to the committee once we have conducted research to identify that Department. We need a Department to commit to working with us to see how the project can be rolled out effectively.
There are several issues with regard to the gender pay gap in the hospitality, retail and cleaning sectors, all of which are problematic because often the contracts are for precarious work0. Low-paid and part-time work is problematic. Even in the public sector broadly, it is women who have been affected most by the cuts in pay because of the fact that most of the middle income earners are women.
Social Justice Ireland made an excellent contribution to the debate. We all rely on it analysis and the facts and figures provided by it. On the first-time buyer's scheme - the help-the-builders' scheme - Social Justice Ireland stated it was pointless. Did it arrive at that opinion before the Central Bank changed the macro prudential rules? Will it elaborate on the reasons it believes it is pointless?
Dr. Seán Healy:
We had come to it before the Central Bank changed its position. It was mentioned in the analysis we produced on the night of the budget. If the cause of the problem is principally the lack of supply, we fail to see how this initiative will impact on it. Accordingly, it is pointless in tackling the cause. According to the Government, there are 89,000 households, not individuals, on housing waiting lists. There will be a new count soon. The last time we thought the numbers would have been halved, but, in actual fact, they had not gone down at all, even though the Government used a different methodology. The 89,000 households are, for the most part, in the private rental sector or homeless. The Government has a plan to deal with the issue. The plan is welcome as it is the biggest for some time. However, only 47,000 units will be produced under it by 2021. That will still bring us only half way in dealing with the current problem, without any increase in the number of households. There will, however, be an increase in the numbers on housing waiting lists because the demographics are changing. It seemed to us that a different approach was required. Despite all the pushing and shoving, the private sector did not seem to be able to generate a huge number of new builds. We were proposing something different. Perhaps the best way to deal with the problem is to look at it from the other side and see if we can take the 89,000 households out of the equation by building social housing for them. Once they are taken out of the equation, one will have had a reduction of 89,000 households in the number looking for private rental accommodation. That should change the equation and, I hope, bring supply and demand much closer to each other. It is not rocket science. This is economics course No. 101.
While I agree with the analysis, let me play devil's advocate. While the Government would not admit to this - Fianna Fáil allowed this measure to come into being - the reality is that the scheme will push up house prices because developers claim their profit margins are not large enough to make it viable for them to start building. The Central Bank's measure is that property prices will increase by close to or in excess of double-digit figures in the next 12 months. This will increase profit margins for developers and, therefore, supply. If that were to take place, would that not deal with the issue and, at least, justify the Government's position, even though it would deny that is its agenda? The scheme will allow developers to achieve the figure of 15% because prices have gone up and, therefore, supply will start to increase in the market.
Dr. Seán Healy:
We do not think so. There is an issue about the cost of housing, about which there are many arguments. We are not convinced that putting something in place that will give the developer extra money will generate extra supply. It seems to us that in that analysis there is a failure to understand the 89,000 households on housing waiting lists will never buy a house. Their incomes are so far removed from anything remotely close to what is required to get a mortgage to buy a house that they are not at the races. We will still be left with 89,000 households on housing waiting lists and until such time as the Government puts a social housing programme in place to deal with them, we will be left with the problem.
Part of the issue is that there seems to be a certain slowness on the part of local authorities to start building. From talking to people in local authorities, it seems that there is concern that central government is not really serious about building social housing. There is a belief that it is really trying to get the housing market going again, that it will eventually create one almighty approved housing body that will be given the funding required to provide 100,000 social housing units over a period of time and that responsibility will be taken away from the local authorities. That is the concern of some of the local authority officials with whom I have had discussions. My basic position is that money could be made available at very lost, using off-the-books methodology which would require a rental cost approach and removing the ceiling in the differential rent system. It is clear that there is the capacity to have an off-the-books mechanism to provide the funding needed to build units to eliminate the social housing problem. Supply and demand would start to come into balance and it would then be very interesting to see what would happen with prices because they are being driven by demand.
I thank Dr. Seán Healy, Ms Eilís Ní Chaithnía and Ms Orla O'Connor. I am sorry that I missed the initial presentations, but I had to be in the Dáil Chamber to ask a parliamentary question. I thank both organisations for all of their fantastic work which really helps to inform our understanding of these important issues every year. I agree overwhelmingly with what the delegates have said. I welcome their highlighting of the importance of access to analytical models and the proper staffing of the budgetary office. I also welcome emphasis placed by them on spending on infrastructure and social services, as well as dealing with the pay and pensions gap for women. On the latter, I have a question for the representatives of the National Women's Council of Ireland. They mentioned the fact that precarious work - I would add outsourcing - was a major contributory factor to the pay gap for women. What would the council propose to address that issue? I have a few thoughts on it and the delegates may have mentioned some of them in their earlier presentation. They include banning zero hour contracts, substantially increasing the minimum wage to make it a living wage and so forth. What does the council believe we should do in that general area?
On the pensions gap, we have been discussing recently how a certain cohort of women who have worked for a long period and made total social insurance contributions which should make them eligible to receive the full contributory pension are not receiving it because they took a break at some point from paid work. The payment is worked out based on yearly averages, as a result of which a large cohort of women are losing out. I do not know if the delegates mentioned this earlier, but it suggests to me the pensions gap will actually widen in the coming years. There is a large cohort of women who are reaching pension age who will be disadvantaged. I agree with the council's recommendation of a universal pension as against providing private pension tax breaks.
On the new child care scheme, is the council concerned that it will not start until September 2017? The additional money allocated to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is very small, which suggests there is not a lot of funding available for the scheme, despite all the fanfare. It appears that it will not make a significant difference because the amount of money necessary for it to be really effective has not been provided.
I ask the representatives of the council to respond to these questions. I will then put some specific questions to Social Justice Ireland.
Ms Eilís Ní Chaithnía:
The Deputy has raised a number of important questions. I will respond briefly to them, but I can provide more details at a later date, if required.
On the child care scheme, the view of the National Women's Council of Ireland of the decision of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, is that it represents a significant policy change. We are happy that a universal subsidised child care service will be available. We have mentioned our concern that the funding provided, €80 per month, will not radically reduce the amount people have to spend on child care. Child care costs are enormous, but the scheme represents a start. In that context, we are delighted. We fundamentally support the change in policy and have asked that the committee push for a significant increase in funding for the scheme in budget 2018. As Ms O'Connor said, we speak to the Minister about the issue on a regular basis and intend to make a submission during the Department's consultation process. There are a number of issues we want to address, in addition to the issue of funding.
Let me ask a brief supplementary question while we are on the topic. Does the National Women's Council of Ireland believe it would be preferable to move towards a national child care service which was publicly provided rather than subsidising private sector providers?
Ms Eilís Ní Chaithnía:
Our position has always been to support the provision of accessible, affordable, universal child care services. We believe the new scheme is a step in the right direction.
On the pensions gap, we have written a significant submission on universal pension provision which we will forward to the Deputy, given the time constraints and the fact that we have dealt with the issue a few times already today.
Ms Eilís Ní Chaithnía:
On the gender pay gap, the National Women's Council of Ireland believes increases in the national minimum wage are essential. The issues of precarious work and low hour contracts are also very important. We welcome the Bill which has been brought forward by Senator Gerald Nash, although we have not yet analysed it in detail, but we are very happy, in principle, that such a Bill has been proposed. We can analyse it further and make our views known on it. We believe a significant amount of work is needed in this area. In dealing with the gender pay gap the issue of child care provision is crucial. As Ms O'Connor said, it is the major issue in dealing with the gender pay and pensions gaps. The pension system is based on the male breadwinner model. The provision of a universal, accessible child care service should, if properly resourced, help to reduce the gender pay gap.
My next question is to Dr. Seán Healy. As well as the issues mentioned, I welcome his reference to the fiscal rules and the need to address them. Will he elaborate on the changes needed in that regard? I wholeheartedly agree with his general comments. Does he agree that EU state aid rules are also a major problem? They are related to the fiscal rules in that they emanate from the same basic neoliberal approach. We need to address them radically because they are a major blockage to public investment in infrastructure, services and so forth.
They are a major blockage to the public investment programmes, infrastructure, services and public enterprise we need.
Dr. Healy mentioned housing. I agree wholeheartedly with him that we will not solve this problem unless we get back to large-scale local authority housing provision. I wish to dig into this a little more because it is an issue that has not come up much. He also pointed to all the other problems in the current approach. Does he agree with me that there is a very significant cost to the State in the approach being undertaken, as limited and unsatisfactory as it is? He has outlined the numbers and the fact that the 47,000 units will not deal with the current numbers or those that will come on board. So much of rebuilding Ireland depends on long-term leasing arrangements of one variety or another, whether HAPs, long-term leasing initiatives or whatever. What is not being calculated even within the 47,000 is the long-term cost to the State. All this money will be going out, and the amount will increase exponentially. I do not think this has been drilled into. I do not know if the witnesses agree with me or if they have thought about this, but it is a real question we must ask. How much money will be going out over the years rather than into the creation of a fixed asset for the State and a local authority rather than privately leased housing from the State? Could the witnesses comment on this?
My last question concerns an area where we have had some disagreements over the years, namely, the emphasis on not cutting taxes for middle income earners, whether USC, water and property taxes or whatever. I wish to ask the witnesses about this again. Social Justice Ireland always rightly emphasises the issue of equality. Is it not the case that in the context of about 50% of workers, even those who earn what are called middle incomes, effectively no longer being solvent, it is entirely right for us to champion their getting to a point at which their earnings can afford the basics? To take housing as the biggest cost for people, such is its high cost that housing alone is making people effectively insolvent even if they are in the middle income earning bracket. The real problem is that, rather than opposing tax breaks at this level, which might bring the middle income earners up a little as well as the low income earners, the area we really need to go after is corporate tax. I know the witnesses would agree with that, but there needs to be much more emphasis on this and on genuine wealth taxes. These are the areas where, it seems to me, a huge amount of money is not addressed properly in budgets, even in the discussions surrounding them. It is addressed by Social Justice Ireland, but it seems to me that successive Governments are just not interested in this area at a time when profits and profit share as against wage share have gone through the roof. There seems to be no interest in a redistributive tax system, which is what we need to go for, or the recent CSO figures, which I think show that the wealthiest 10% have increased their share of all wealth from 42% to 54%. This is the problem. This is what is exacerbating inequality. We need to target in a very focused way this 10% and profits as the way to redistribute in a serious way.
Ms Michelle Murphy:
I will respond to the question about housing and part of Deputy Boyd Barrett's last question. There is a huge long-term cost to HAP, and this is the challenge. If the private rented sector is relied on to provide social housing, there will be a significant long-term cost to the State. That is why we have argued and continue to argue that the social housing element of the housing crisis in which we find ourselves needs to be separated out from and addressed separately to the private rented sector. We made this argument in our presentation to the special Oireachtas committee on housing. Of the numbers for housing announced in the budget, the majority, 15,000, are to be delivered through HAP, so only 4,450 will actually be constructed. This is the real challenge. The building of a social housing unit is a one-off cost to the State, and the State then has an asset. If a cost-rental system is then introduced, the State can generate some income from the asset.
Second, to touch on the question regarding income taxes and tax cuts, the statistics show that those on middle incomes earn between €27,000 and €30,000 per annum, so any tax cuts for them will be very small. What should be done is investment in the social wage or, in other words, reducing their cost of living. This is done by investing in child care, public transport, health, education and so on because there is no way income tax can be reduced so much as to give middle income earning individuals enough money in their pockets to purchase all these services in the private market. Therefore, the cost of living needs to be reduced. In order to do so, there needs to be investment in the collective social wage, from which all of us benefit. Some of us contribute more than others, but we would never be able to afford all these services on our own.
Dr. Seán Healy:
The issue of the fiscal rules was raised. We published a briefing at the time of the proposed reform and the referendum for an Oireachtas committee that was examining the matter. This was before the referendum on the fiscal rules. We pointed out that the measures were quite dangerous. We set out what would happen, which is exactly what has happened. What has happened is that we now have the capacity within the country to build the infrastructure and develop services up to European average levels but are hindered in doing so because we cannot access the money due to the fiscal rules. We pointed out at the time - I believe this even more so now, and we are joined in our concerns by many serious people, big names - that the fiscal rules are not really solutions to the economic issues with which they were meant to deal. Quite recently, we met with the IMF evaluation unit that is examining the IMF's evaluation of its proposals for Ireland at the start of the bailout. It is quite clear that it now recognises that it could have got the same results for far less austerity and job losses, which were the two critical issues over which we argued with the IMF every three months during its visits here over all those years.
How can the fiscal rules be dealt with? There are a number of proposals. We are not alone in this: the French, the Italians and others have suggestions as to how to deal with them. One very good one, from my perspective, and which I would recommend, is that money going towards investment should not be counted in the calculation at all. If one builds a house, as Ms Murphy has said, it is built. It does not have to be built again next year. Therefore, it is a kind of one-off investment. This kind of investment in infrastructure should not be included in the calculation. This is quite different from wage increases or new employees that will recur in the following years. However, if this suggestion were acted on, Ireland would have more than sufficient space, and the money is there to be borrowed. Our problem will be that the time would have passed and the interest rates would have risen before Europe gets around to doing it. In a decade or two or three, people will look back on this generation of politicians and Governments and ask what possessed them, when money was available at a rate of 1% to Government, not to access it to provide the infrastructure that they will have spent decades having to put in place.
Dr. Seán Healy:
I take a similar approach to the state aid rules. We need to recognise that Ireland started out, when it joined the European Union, at something like 75% or 78% of the European average - our infrastructure is not at the European 15 average at all. I do not think anybody claims that it is and the same applies to our services. While we would like to have the best in Europe, people believe that we should have at least the European average. We have to recognise that we are substantially below that. Therefore, the state aid rules, the fiscal rules and other rules, as well as issues relating to bailouts, austerity and the speed at which we need to reduce debt and so on need to bear in mind that the country at the end of the day needs to put the infrastructure in place to give it the capacity to develop an economy and a society that can maintain itself through the various economic cycles that will come. We will have crashes in the future, just as we have had them in the past. That is the nature of the economic cycle.
On the third issue about not cutting taxes on middle-income earners, it is important to note what we have proposed. For example, we referred to things that would have made a difference to people on PAYE. Our budget submission proposed to increase the PAYE tax credit; to make tax credits refundable - that would have benefitted low-income people and not middle-income people, but it would have been very positive. We proposed standard rating so that the benefits of the tax breaks are at the same percentage meaning that somebody on 40% does not get twice the tax break for a pension, or whatever, that somebody on a lower income gets.
We also proposed reform of the research and development tax credit to remove the refund element of that. The most important one for us was to introduce a minimum effective corporation tax rate. We have no doubt that that can be done and it should apply to all profits coming through the country and not just what is declared to be profits by some grouping, whether that is a company, the Revenue, the Department of Finance or whatever.
We agree with tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, as well as taxing empty housing or underdeveloped land. We need to restore the windfall gain tax on rezoned land which had been introduced but was removed in 2015 just when it was starting to make some impact. It could not have made any impact before that - as there was no land on sale, there were no windfall gains. The introduction of a financial transactions tax was another example.
In the longer overall approach, we do not believe we need to go as far as even having the European average tax take as a percentage of GDP, but we need to move towards it. We are a long way below it; along with a few of the eastern European countries we are very close to the bottom in the European tax leagues. We need to change our approach in that context. Then we can make choices. For example, there are issues to do with resource taxes. We need to think more about how we address climate change and promote environmental protection through the tax system. There are many issues there.
Dr. Healy referred to Ireland having a lower tax take. A number of witnesses appeared before the committee in advance of the budget, including Seamus Coffey from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. He said:
If one looks at income tax, sales taxes like VAT, corporation tax, which is now above the OECD average, and other taxes, we are close to the average for most of them. There might be differences in how we collect the money. With income tax, we are close to the OECD average for the amount of money collected but we collect it in a much different manner from other countries.
Can Dr. Healy explain the discrepancy?
Dr. Seán Healy:
I can explain it very easily; I have had this discussion with Seamus Coffey on many an occasion, even in the presence of the Minister for Finance. There are some quite serious differences when the calculations are done. When one tax is compared with the same tax elsewhere in isolation, then one can be completely different from the other. It is necessary to look at the overall tax take. The OECD has a methodology for doing this. EUROSTAT has a slightly different version of that. They will both show comparisons for all the European countries, which show that Ireland's total tax take is down in the bottom four or five countries out of the EU 28.
When that is broken down, the biggest difference is in employers' PRSI, which in a country like France is four times what it is in Ireland as a percentage. We are making choices. We argue for impact assessment in advance of the budget and not after it - the kind of stuff I was talking about earlier. We should be mature enough as a nation to ask ourselves about the choices we are making on taxation. We need to consider the whole ball of wax, the complete tax take, including local charges, VAT, water charges, income tax, all the pieces of PRSI and so on. We need to split it out, and see what the comparisons are and what they tell us the choices we are making. We then need to be mature enough as a Government to say, "We are making this choice for that reason." Let the evidence speak.
I am sorry I missed the earlier presentations. I read the submission from the National Women's Council, which correctly pointed to a significant policy change in this budget. It is a very specific and welcome intervention to provide child care support for low-income families specifically using registered child care facilities. The second payment cannot be called a universal payment. How can it be called a universal payment when a full category of parents - usually women - who are caring for children themselves or are caring through a relative are not entitled to any such payment?
I have a fundamental concern that we have made that significant policy change and that the implication will be very significant in making it difficult for those who want to care themselves. For example, in Dublin where property is so expensive, if one form of child care is supported by the State, which is welcome, and another form is not, the other one becomes increasingly unviable with resultant social consequences. I recently had an exchange with the Minister, Deputy Zappone, in the Dáil about Senator Elizabeth Warren's book The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are Going Broke.
I accept the need to support parents particularly in low-income families where we want to tackle poverty, but I am really concerned that the method discriminates against parents who may want to raise children at home or use a relative. I cannot understand or accept the word "universal" being used because it see it as the very opposite of universal - if we are supporting one type of care why are we not supporting another kind of care?
I have a philosophical question. In a sense we have sold our souls to an American, OECD or European Commission job-activation measure which is all about getting the economy going and getting as many people working as possible, and does not value caring because it is telling a category of parents using one type of caring that we do not value that type of caring. I do not criticise the intention of supporting those on lower incomes in particular who are using child care, with which I absolutely agree. However, why should we make this policy change where we do not leave it to the parent to decide what is best? Historically, that was the approach taken. Every family and every child is different and living in different circumstances. The parents are in the best position to choose the appropriate care model. Why is the National Women's Council supporting a system that discriminates against those who choose a particular model?
Ms Eilís Ní Chaithnía:
That has been the crux of the debate, has it not? There are a couple of pieces. A core priority in the National Women's Council's work is to increase economic independence for women. There are a number of reasons for that. Without economic independence, women are more vulnerable in society. That is a fact. In addition, they are more vulnerable to violence, domestic abuse and so on. Economic independence is a crucial element of women's equality in society. Providing subsidised child care is a key element of ensuring women participate in the labour market and in other forms of civic engagement. That is where we are coming from. We do not at all suggest that providing support for women who are working and women who have the option of staying in the home should be preclusive. It should not be mutually exclusive. It should not be one or the other. The National Women's Council has been talking very clearly about what providing a subsidised model of child care allows.
The National Women's Council has been working on this for about a decade. Over the past decade, at least, we have heard consistently on the radio, certainly before every budget, that there needs to be a child care model subsidised by the State and that child care levels are precluding women from entering the workforce. That has to be addressed. This initiative is the first step in addressing that. We reject the idea that it should be a matter of one or the other. There should be other supports for women who are caring for their children in the home. The National Women's Council does not suggest at all that there should be one or the other. That, of course, is a choice that needs to be made by a woman and the family.
Is that not what we have here? The definition in the policy change is such that it is preclusive. The previous approach was through child benefit and other mechanisms, which were genuinely universal, to target parents with young children, in particular, and support them. Admittedly, there was an increase to the home carer's benefit but it is marginal. Some €5 million or €6 million was allocated for hundreds of thousands of people so it is almost negligible. Therefore, what has been introduced is discriminatory by definition. I do not hear the National Women's Council arguing for equal supports for individuals at home, largely women. What we are getting is an non-equal approach.
I have a point on seeking economic independence. The argument for it goes without saying. Let us go back to Senator Elisabeth Warren's evidence that giving economic independence to everyone working all the time actually decreases economic independence in the end. The experience in the United States is that it has led to massive levels of bankruptcy and difficulties, particularly for those couples in a dual-income trap. Their cost base increased because of the competitive bidding up of prices of housing, health care, child care and so on. This leads to an economy in which, if anything happens in a family in respect of a child with a disability, special needs, special circumstances, illness or other life circumstances demanding flexibility, there is not economic independence but a precarious economic situation. Evidence presented very clearly by Senator Elizabeth Warren is that the outcome is not independence. This is what the United States has created and what we are replicating here. It is actually an economic growth model that leads to economic uncertainty and difficulties in the long run.
Ms Eilís Ní Chaithnía:
The universal child care model we have been talking about and the first step taken by the Minister is not being presented as the panacea for what is becoming a much more precarious environment. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked us about legislating against precarious working conditions and contracts. We stated in our pre-budget submission that this should happen. We have also called for an increase to the home carer's credit. We seek a further increase in that.
Ms Michelle Murphy has talked about the need for lowering the cost of living across Ireland. That needs to happen in addition to the introduction of the new scheme proposed by the Minister. A range of measures need to be put in place. The initial affordable child care scheme cannot address all the issues the Deputy identified but it certainly makes provision for women who wish to engage in the labour market.
Many issues arise over the activation policies that are in place. The National Women's Council refers to them regularly. We have carried out research on young women who are incredibly frustrated by the fact that the activation measures currently in place are forcing them into the very same sectors that are offering part-time precarious work. This is often due to de factounconscious gender bias in that the officers assume the women want to go into the types of roles that women go into, thus forcing them into sectors such as the retail and hospitality sectors, where they will be stuck in low-paid, precarious jobs.
There is a range of measures. If Deputy Eamon Ryan has not seen our pre-budget submission, he should note it touches on a number of the issues he is raising.
I look forward to the debate on next year's budget. I find it very difficult to accept the word "universal" when a majority of parents involved in caring are excluded. How can it be called a universal payment?
Ms Michelle Murphy:
It is not universal given the terms the Deputy is using. We state families must be able to avail of the care that is most suitable for them. If one wants to care for one's child at home, one should not be forced to use child care. We hope the proposal is the first step in the Minister looking at the really detailed interdepartmental working group report on early years. The report considered not only child care providers who provide care in their own homes and the question of how parents who want to care for their children at home can be supported. One would hope this is the beginning of a suite of measures. This requires an approach that is much broader than one budget. My concern, which was echoed by some members of this committee, is the very limited resources allocated to the Department. There is no multiannual budgeting. We will certainly be bringing this up when the Minister is having a policy consultation on the strategy for children between zero and six. I am sure this will come up. One cannot be prescriptive in terms of how people want to care for their children. A national child care service has to encompass more than just provision in a certain setting. One has to enable companies to take the option that is most appropriate for them.
I agree on extra resources. I also agree on pensions.
I see us repeating the same mistake again. We see certain tasks as work if they are in the paid economy. If they are not in the paid economy, they are not regarded as work and do not count or matter. That is what this budget said. That was a tragedy. I am not sure if Dr. Seán Healy has a view on that issue.
Dr. Seán Healy:
We have very strong views on that. We had a conference last Tuesday in Croke Park on the very issues of universality and access to money. We went on at some length about the fact that work is more than a paid job. This needs to be recognised but it is not at the moment because care work is not paid for. All sorts of caring tasks are done in society that are just taken as a given. They are done by families and within families. Since they are not paid for, they are not recognised as paid work.
Our view is that all these kinds of things need to move towards universality. Therefore, one needs a basic income put into place so every child and every man and woman, including older persons, will have access to a basic income automatically every week and every year of their lives.
That is always there, that type of universality. Then, one builds on top of it the fact that every adult has the right to meaningful work. However, that means people who are unemployed have a right to meaningful work as well. There is more to meaningful work than a paid job. We need to think in those terms. We are thinking about shaping up society and the economy for the changes that are coming. The changes in digitalisation and technology that are coming down the line are going to lead to major job losses in some sectors. We need to recognise that even in that world, if we cannot replace the jobs with other paid employment, people still have a right to work. As such, we need to structure our society for that purpose. That is what we are trying to do.
In terms of what Dr. Healy said about broadening the tax base and resource taxes, does he have any thoughts on the water charges issue? I would be interested to hear them. Second, I did not hear anyone refer to the issue since the budget of public pay and how that might affect budget choice. I do not know whether Dr. Healy has anything to say on that.
Before Dr. Healy replies, I ask that we take all the questions in one go. I have a meeting to get to that started 20 minutes ago and it is taking a lot of time for people to make a contribution. That is not specifically directed at Deputy Ryan. I just want to get my questions on the record, but I really have to run.
Dr. Healy referred to the need to have an adult conversation. I put it to him that we need to have a conversation in this country about what we are willing to do to have certain services, a basic income and a universal pension. We will have to pay a lot of tax to fund that. We are at loggerheads because we do not want to pay excessive taxes, yet we want all of these fantastic services. It is about having that conversation about how one strikes that balance. Deputy Ryan has asked about how to broaden the tax base. What are Dr. Healy's suggestions for doing that because we will be having a conversation about it? The Chairman has already spoken to Dr. Healy about his suggestion that we collect one of the lowest amounts of tax in Europe. It does not feel like that for most people. I acknowledge that Dr. Healy answered on the PRSI issue, but does he have any comments to make around the tax bands and the ways to broaden the tax base, increase revenues and make things a little bit fairer?
I note Dr. Healy's comments that we are underfunding the education sector. I have an institute of technology in my constituency which is at risk of closing next year. It was put to me very simply that if it were a private company, it would be going into examinership in January. That is how badly off it is. It is not just that institute of technology; it is the entire sector. While the universities are a little better able to weather the storm, institutes of technology are under severe pressure. I would welcome Dr. Healy's thoughts on that given the Cassell's report we had in the past number of months.
To the National Women's Council, I note that I do not need to reiterate what everyone else has said about the pensions issue. It is disgraceful and shocking that women are being so disadvantaged. I welcome the council's research on that which definitely helps to inform us as to how we fix that issue. The bottom line is that it needs to be fixed. The reality is that women were forced out of the workplace through laws we passed and we are now penalising them for it. I want to get some comments from the council on parental leave and how it might address the gender pay gap. Sometimes the gender pay gap is thought to be a matter of two people being paid different rates for the same job. It is actually not that. It is the average incomes of men versus the average incomes of women and women earn less. While there are often situations where one is getting paid less for the same work, it is also that one is in lower paid or part-time employment and all of those things. Access to parental leave might level the playing field a little so that one has access to those higher earning jobs and greater career progression.
Both groups touched in their reports on the situation of under-25s and social welfare rates. I have said before and repeat for the record that it is clear discrimination on the basis of age. We expect those people to pay full taxes in employment, yet we do not offer them the same social protections. I welcome the witnesses' comments on that. It is good to have it on the record.
Dr. Seán Healy:
Before water charges were introduced, a committee here looked at it. We made a presentation and suggested that here should be a very generous water allowance for all households depending on the number of people there and all excess water should be charged for. It sounds familiar, does it not? In fact, it sounded really familiar reading this morning's papers. Most Irish people would be fair about that if the other piece that needed to be put in was there. That piece is serious and substantial investment to deal with leaks and sewage issues that are not being addressed. For us, it is quite clear how we should have proceeded in the first place. The problem was that it got caught up in a whole lot of other stuff that did not necessarily have a great deal to do with water but had to do with people suffering with too much austerity, which I have already talked about. Some of the pressure for that, at least, came from outside the country.
On public sector pay, we are very aware of the fact that any increase in public sector pay, not just this coming year, but any time, involves a choice about resources. Obviously, people need to be paid the going rate for the job, whatever that happens to be, but in times of scarce resources choices have to be made between infrastructure, services, pay and a range of other issues. We suggest very strongly that all sectors of society should be engaged in that process. Formerly, we had a process for doing that in social partnership, which was perhaps imperfect albeit not as bad as it is sometimes portrayed to be. I am not saying we should go back to social partnership as it was, but I am saying that unless we involve all sectors of society in the decision making this requires, parts of society will not support the decisions and one will wind up to the broken approach to development that we see in politics in Britain, the USA and, possibly, other European countries.
The only thing I said in the public arena at the Brexit forum organised by the Taoiseach was that I was interested in, supported and welcomed the fact that there was a great deal of focus on the consequences of Brexit. Until I stood up and made the point, however, there was not one comment on the causes of Brexit. Unless we deal with the causes of Brexit, that type of thing will come again from another country in another space. It could even happen in Ireland. The issues that have to be addressed in that context are very close to the issues that have to be addressed when choices are made with relatively scarce resources between pay and tax and tax cuts and infrastructure and service development.
Certainly, we need a conversation on the cost of universal services. The numbers we have looked at very closely over a long time suggest we can deliver universal services and infrastructure at a level that is at the European average but for slightly less than the European average tax take. However, we cannot do it for as little as we have at the moment. Deputy Chambers said it did not feel like we were a low-tax country. I accept that a lot of people feel that way. It is partly due to a certain kind of socialisation into the idea that we are high-tax country. It is never presented that tax is a contribution we make as citizens to the development of our own infrastructure, services, protection and all the rest of it. If we compare ourselves to the Nordic countries, they take 50% of our tax take again on top of what we have. They have no issue about it and cutting it is not in issue no matter who is in government because they deliver services and infrastructure. People see it and want it to be in place.
Does Ms Murphy want to refer to the issue about under-25s?
Ms Michelle Murphy:
That is well documented and something we brought up at the IMF meeting. The poverty rate in that age cohort has increased dramatically since the welfare cuts were brought in.
The problem now is that the cut is almost embedded in the system so it seems that under-26s will always be at a disadvantage.
In terms of the underfunding of education, institutes of technology are probably feeling the heat the most at the moment. The Cassells report made a number of specific recommendations about what route Government could take in order to fund education. It was really disappointing that the Minister announced another consultation on budget day. It will not address the issue. We will have another year of consultation. Will somebody then be willing to make a decision and say that we need more funding for higher education and then make the difficult choice about how that is done? We should have a discussion about whether we want the service and whether a student charge should be introduced. Even if that is done, the amount of State expenditure and funding will have to be increased. That is a discussion that needs to be had in the context of the question about services and taxes. We need to broaden the base. Many people do not feel low taxed, which goes back to the social wage issue I spoke about earlier because people have to buy services in the private market.
Ms Eilís Ní Chaithnía:
I will make a couple of comments. I thank the Deputy for her support for many of the positions we are putting forward, which is really heartening to hear. There is a really low take-up of parental leave in Ireland because it is not paid. The National Women's Council has welcomed the introduction of two weeks paid paternity leave. In addition to that, there is a need for the introduction of paid parental leave. We will continue to push for that and we hope to see committee-wide support for it.
In terms of the gender pension gap, there are a range of steps that need to be taken. It would be really heartening and welcomed if the committee put a motion forward to prioritise the issue of pensions over the next year and, in particular, to push for a reduction in the gender pension gap. That could be done by suggesting an open consultation on the introduction of the universal pension and by the introduction of a homemaker's credit backdated to 1973. If those two steps were taken in the first instance we would be a long way closer to reducing the gender pension gap. I can send around our most recent submission on the universal pension so the committee has the information.
We have been pushing for gender inequality budgeting. There will be a €5 increase for contributory pensions, but because it ispro rata it will not have the same benefits for women as it will for men. There are all these introductions of what seem to be very promising first steps to increasing people's economic sustainability, in comparison to the past seven years, yet they are not doing what they need to for women and what they are doing for men. Gender inequality budgeting would allow the women of Ireland to see how much the Government prioritises their economic independence and general well-being. It would empower women to argue for particular actions to be taken if they could see very clearly the difference between the impacts of Government decisions in each budget. That can only be done if really effective gender inequality budgeting is introduced. Gender inequality budgeting should not just look at expenditure, which is what we focused on today, but also on revenue. That is being done in Austria, Sweden and Scotland. We will be bringing together experts on that, which we can bring to the committee's attention. We will invite the committee to ask them to appear before the committee.
I thank the witnesses for their time and submissions and for their ongoing work in their respective fields. I very much appreciate it. I will start with the National Women's Council and then move to Social Justice Ireland. I was delighted to hear the National Women's Council describe the child care work of the Minister, Deputy Zappone, as breakthrough work. I was gobsmacked at the cacophony of negativity that it was greeted with. The witness summed it up well. It is the first step in a fundamentally different direction. I was stunned to hear so many people stand up and just give out about it. For every person I heard compliment it, I heard five people say it did not go far enough, which was very disappointing because the Minister should have been supported in what she was trying to do. The National Women's Council has struck the balance well by recognising it as a step and, critically, as a fundamentally new direction for the country to get somewhere. I want to acknowledge that. It is nice to see some positivity rather than all the negativity the Minister has been subjected to since the budget. I just wanted to point that out.
Are the witnesses finding that the pay gap, which grew by 2% during the recession, is steady across the ages? Is it narrowing? Are we fixing it at younger ages between men and women or is it maintaining for men and women in their 20s, 30s and 40s?
Ms Eilís Ní Chaithnía:
We have the CSO figures for 2014 but to see whether or not there has been a change over the past number of years we will have to wait until further CSO figures are released. There are a number of things that are effective. We talked about the activation policies for young women. Our concern, as I said, is that the activation policies are pushing young women into the same sectors they have been in previously. If that is the case, and that is what is being reported to us at the moment, it is a worrying continuation of one aspect of the gender pay gap. Other than that, a small increase in the minimum wage will not get us very far. We would like the introduction of the living wage, which would make an enormous difference.
I have read through the submission by the National Women's Council on what it thinks is required to fix it but my question is whether Ms Ní Chaithnía has a sense of whether the gap is smaller at younger ages?
It would be very useful to see because if we find that the gender pay gap is narrowing from 70s, 60s, 50s, 40s, 30s into 20s, it would suggest a positive progression. If we see that is not happening, it would be very worrying. It might be something Ms Ní Chaithnía would take a look at. If we could find that, it would be very relevant to the next budget cycle.
It would be a very powerful argument to be able to say it is big, it got worse during the recession and it is not better for men and women in their 20s or 30s than men or women in their 50s and 60s. It would be very powerful to be able to see that.
I have started to read through the National Women's Council universal pension idea. It is expensive; it was costed at about €700 million. That is a chunk of change in anyone's book. There are an increasing number of people who have either retired or are close to retirement, particularly women as was pointed out earlier, who are finding they do not meet the contributory pension eligibility criteria and do not qualify for the non-contributory pension because they are a so-called dependent.
I have looked in the last few weeks into the minutiae of the detail and it turns out that if one works for ten years, one gets the full pension. If people were unfortunate enough to work for three weeks after their leaving certificate back in the 1970s or if they work for 25 years, they could find themselves with less. Typically what is happening is worse than that. As men worked and got the stamps, it is nearly always women who were unfortunate enough to be signed up to a month's work or a year's work and then there is a big gap. As the witnesses pointed out, it has not gone back far enough in terms of the home-makers and so on. How big a problem is the National Women's Council finding this is? The witnesses have clearly done a lot of thinking around the State pension. Deputies have a very strange view of the world. They are a bit like doctors, who might think that everyone in Ireland is sick because they only ever meet sick people.
Deputies only tend to meet people who are in trouble, so they do not have a very good sense of what is actually going on. I guess both groups here would have a view on this. How big an issue is it for men and women? It seems to be mainly for women nearing retirement who are finding out that they have been absolutely destroyed because they worked for one or two years in their early 20s.
Ms Eilís Ní Chaithnía:
The issue of pensions and the pension gender gap is the issue about which the National Women's Council is contacted most by women. The greatest number of phone calls, e-mails and letters we receive relate to the gender pension gap and we have a time responding to them. This was our rationale for looking for funding from the Community Foundation for Ireland. We have been lobbying on this for a long time. We engage with and support those women in redirecting them to other supports they might be able to utilise but we are starting to engage with individual women across Ireland and to build up their capacity to push for pension justice on an individual level and within their communities. It is an enormous issue. As I said previously, we will send our submission to the committee and this will provide it with a very rounded view of the difficulties women face.
Dr. Seán Healy:
We have produced a study to solve a problem. We are proposing that all people of pension age get the old age contributory pension in full, regardless of their PRSI contributions. Everybody of that age would get the contributory pension.
Dr. Seán Healy:
No, it is not. It is €140 million. The interesting thing about it is that different costings have been done on this. For ten years, the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners maintained that it would cost €3 billion to do it. We commissioned a study in 2013 and brought it before a committee. It showed quite clearly that the actual figure at that point was €140 million. The committee then brought in the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners and the first thing they did was cut their estimate from €3 billion to €700 million. The committee then asked us whether we would be prepared discuss the matter and get our technical people, who produce the actual spreadsheets, to sit down with officials from the Department of Finance and the Revenue. It was actually Revenue that was really doing the calculations. We said we would do so. An hour after that meeting began, Revenue halved its figure to €350 million. There was no further engagement on the issue. We stand by our figure and we are also producing a fully updated version of it. Like the 2013 figure, it is based on actuarial numbers used by the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance and the actual costings and is clearly done on the basis of population projections. We will use the new population projections on the basis of the new census. Finally, we show how it can be paid for through standard rating and a number of other small changes - nothing dramatic. Given that the figure is €140 million, it is not a huge amount. It is a totally different type of animal to €700 million in a budget context. It would put the equivalent of a full contributory pension into the pocket of everybody of that age.
Ms Michelle Murphy:
Obviously, the full-year cost is €714 million but it would be paid for mainly by standard rating the tax break, which at the last calculation was over €600 million, so you must make up the difference. We have made our proposals here but we have those proposals as well so we are updating the cost based on the new census projections.
Let us put aside the standard rating for a second because to me that is same as saying that if we move the marginal tax rate from X to Y, one could take that up. They are not explicitly linked. Social Justice Ireland is linking them because they are pension issues but they are not-----
Sure, but they are separate issues. If the committee is meeting and doing the algebra of raising and spending money, in the context of the latter, we would have to put in €714 million. That is what I am interested in. Is there an 80-20 version of that says that if one was to do that for everybody, it is the Rolls Royce solution but is too expensive on its own but that a number of people who are falling between the stools and unfairly penalised for having worked for a month 35 years ago could be catered for? Has there been any thought given to the fact that to give it to everybody would cost €714 million but that we could cater for the people who are being grossly discriminated against for €200 million?
Dr. Seán Healy:
I suspect it is much higher. The proportion of the people in receipt of less than the full contributory pension is a very high proportion of the number in receipt of some form of contributory pension. An awful lot of people out there fit into the categories mentioned by the Deputy, for example, they worked for a few weeks after their leaving certificate and then did not have the actual numbers. In effect, people get percentages. Many people get €172 rather than €230. Another very large group of people gets substantially less than that because they did not have those ten years. That is what the ten years earns a person.
I will finish with the National Women's Council of Ireland. This is an open question. The committee is looking at a full-year budget for the first time. In terms of gender equality, be it in respect of opportunity, retirement age and the pay gap - the entire gamut of gender equality - does the council have a top three list of items it believes the committee should recommend to the Dáil for next year?
Ms Eilís Ní Chaithnía:
As I mentioned, pensions broadly should be prioritised with the universal pension and the home-maker's credit coming under that. During the debate on the Social Welfare Bill in the Seanad, a commitment was made in the context of producing a report on the impact on lone parents of social and economic changes that have taken place since 2002. We would be really interested in seeing the results of that. If it was done in an appropriate manner, and we can certainly feed into framing that, it would be interesting. The prioritisation of lone parents is key because they have been one and remain one of the most disadvantaged groupings. The third item would be driving the gender equality budgeting process. It is tricky choosing between that and the increased resourcing of child care. If the Deputy would accept a fourth item, it would be child care. Those would be the three items on the list.
I read through Social Justice Ireland's submissions, which refer to tax credit refunds and so forth.
What is the group's opinion on the concern about taking people out of the tax net? It is not a smart thing to do. There are other ways of helping. It is not about less support. My belief, rightly or wrongly, is that if people are paying taxes, it is empowering. They feel that they have a right to demand more of their State because they are paying for it. I am wary of taking lower income workers out of the tax net. It is not about penalising anyone. There are other ways to use the money.
Would Social Justice Ireland like to see lower income workers out of the tax net or should there be some amount of payment as a psychological tool so that people feel that they have a right to demand justice, equality, services, fair play and so forth?
Dr. Seán Healy:
I thought that one might have gone to each of us.
It needs to be recognised that poor people who do not pay income tax actually pay close to one third of their total incomes in tax. Much of the time, this is not recognised by anyone except the people themselves. They get a great deal of abuse for being "freeloaders" even though they pay VAT, levies and so forth.
Taking people out of the tax net and lowering what they pay in tax have little value to people on low-to-middle incomes if services and infrastructure do not replace, and more than replace, the money that has been taken away. There is a balance to be found between the money that people are contributing to society in tax and the investment in services delivered for same. Ireland's problem is that our infrastructure and services are far below the European average and our tax take is commensurate with that, and if we want to give people an advantage, we reduce taxes further instead of increasing infrastructure, for example, broadband and social housing, or improving services, be they health, education or something else.
The tax take should rise over time towards the European average - it does not necessarily need to reach it - principally through broadening the tax base. That money should then be used for investing in better services and so on. In this way, low-income people would pay a little bit of income tax, but their infrastructure - social housing, broadband and public transport - and health and education services would be much improved.
We are suggesting that this be done via five budget priorities, although one is governance, which might not cost much. The Government needs to consider the idea of a vibrant economy. There should be adequate investment in programmes that we have identified as needing it. Social housing and rural broadband are the two obvious ones. Their development would be good for the economy, the individual and society in many ways. We have thoughts on many other programmes, but those are just two.
We have gone on and on about decent services and infrastructure this afternoon, but it is important that they be improved. For this reason, we would invest in broadband and social housing. We would also invest in health, education and welfare. Welfare rates-----
Dr. Seán Healy:
Invest in rural broadband and social housing, increase social welfare payments and introduce refundable tax credits. That last addresses the working poor issue. A minimum effective corporate tax rate should be introduced and there should be good governance. For example, resource the independent budget office properly and expand the ongoing social and economic dialogue to include all sectors and cover all issues, not just pay.
I will provide a practical suggestion on sustainability. Promote the idea, and publish shadow national accounts. This does not mean that the national accounts be dropped. Rather, a new set should be developed alongside them. Several other countries have done this. These accounts include the cost of, for example, environmental damage and the value of unpaid work. This provides a different picture of the economy and society and leaves one in a much better space when trouble hits and a decision needs to be made. Shadow national accounts may show the impact that one would not see from just examining the standard national accounts, GNP, GDP and so on.
Ms Michelle Murphy:
We were trying to make a point that the Deputy referenced when discussing the child care proposal in the previous budget. If one wants to persuade people to take a longer term view and help them to realise that one will not solve the child care issue, for example, in a single budget, but instead over five or ten years, one must be able to sell the package that there will be incremental improvements in a budget-by-budget process.
Ms Michelle Murphy:
One cannot make every tax change or expenditure increase that people want in a single budget. It has to be done over a period because it has to be done incrementally. If one can show people the end point and how it will be reached, one can bring them along. Until then, however, there will be the sorts of challenge that the Deputy mentioned to Ms Ní Chaithnía, for example, the number of people who do not see the value in the policy change. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs introduced that policy change.
It sounds like political heresy - long-term visions and planning. Where we would be? No, I agree wholeheartedly.
I will ask a simple question to which there may not be a simple answer. Social Justice Ireland is on the national media a great deal concerning homelessness and it works in that area. I am not referring to housing, but emergency accommodation for the men, women and, God forgive us, children who are out there tonight, and have been out there last night and the night before, freezing. I am not discussing clever, integrated services that get people back into homes. I am discussing a country in which people do not freeze outside at night. Aside from an integrated service, how much would it take to stop just that bit from happening? Has Social Justice Ireland a sense of what a Government cheque would need to amount to in order to stop men, women and children from being cold and homeless tonight?
Ms Michelle Murphy:
I do not have the exact figure to hand, but the increase in the budget reflects the increase in need. Two years ago, the homeless agency had a strategy and claimed that type of homelessness could be eliminated within 18 months. It cited a figure, although I do not have it to hand. Such an amount would not have solved the social housing and private rental issues, but it would have solved that. The figure is available. It has probably increased since then because the number of people in homelessness has increased.
Dr. Seán Healy:
That question always worries me because people might conclude that they can take their focus off supply.
Whatever number we put down on it, and we will send it on, it is a temporary number based on the premise that one is then going to have a sufficient supply to stop the flow. We would be clearing the number of people who are already homeless but we have to stop the flow of people into homelessness. That is going to require housing accommodation.
I could not agree more. That is why I put a caveat to the question. It is a much bigger question. There is also a raw ethical issue of a rich country allowing what is happening tonight and every night.
I thank Dr. Healy and the Chairman, I am nearly done and I thank them for their time. I want to go back to a point made by the Chairman on the level of taxation. This committee spent some time looking at where we are at regarding public spending. Reference was made to Mr. Seamus Coffey, who said that we are a lower tax economy and a lower spend economy, however the majority of that lower spend and lower tax is in social insurance as seen in pensions. Mr. Coffey said that when one actually strips out other European social spend, and when we look at the national accounts and strip out social insurance contributions including employers' PRSI, and we strip out the fact that Ireland has a really low State pension, which is paltry - a lot of other countries have a contribution-based pension - then according to Mr. Coffey actually our total spend on other public services and out total revenue raised are in and around the European average. I contacted Mr. Coffey and asked for the data on this and I am still waiting on a reply. That is, however, what he told the committee and it is my understanding that he knows this stuff quite well. If we assume that he is broadly correct - there may be technicalities - and if we assume that what he is saying is directionally correct, would the National Women's Council and Social Justice Ireland be in favour of moving in both places? Would they say that they want to see higher social insurance contributions of probably a mixture of individual contributions and employer contributions, and that we would move from a relatively flat-based pension support system to a contribution-based system? This would mean that people on higher incomes would end up with higher pensions so it is not a perfect choice. What is Dr. Healy's view on that?
Dr. Seán Healy:
I am going to have to leave after this question as I am already 25 minutes late for a meeting with another very serious body. I wish to be very clear on this. Our proposal has been that there should be two separate initiatives. One is the introduction of a universal State pension along the lines that we have spoken about, put the cost of it down and go for that. On the other side we have also proposed that the State create its own pension fund into which any worker could put money throughout their lives that would be managed by NTMA or such a body with a similar level of competence, and that would basically be able to outperform, we would think, market-driven stuff where lots of profits must be taken from the funds. In the context of our proposal, it would simply be the State that was supporting it. This is probably the best way to do it because the critically important thing for us is that with the changing world into which we face, people are going to have much more uneven engagement with the world of employment throughout their lives. The idea of a permanent job for life, in the same place and paying a family wage is long gone. The new world of work would be much better served by universal pension on one side, basic income in the normal working years and pension contributions if people want to top up by putting in whatever they like and have the State run the fund. We could leave the pensions funds there that are currently there but the proposal would be that the State would also provide one that was reliable and not likely to take half of the fund or people losing huge chunks of their pension funds simply because the people who are running the funds are taking a huge amount of the money - which has been the experience of people over the years.
I thank Dr. Healy and I thank the National Women's Council and Social Justice Ireland for their presentations and in answering a lot of questions. There will be ongoing contact between this committee and yourselves. I am sure that they will be before the committee again sometime in 2017. I also thank members.