Thursday, 8 December 2005
Financial Resolution No. 5: General (Resumed).
Mary Upton (Dublin South Central, Labour)
I would like to share my time with Deputies Broughan and O'Shea.
I intend to address issues relevant to my portfolio of agriculture and food. I was disturbed to find that the first line of the Minister for Agriculture and Food's budget press release reveals all that needs to be said about this Government's attitude to farmers, food consumers and producers. In that press release, the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, stated that farmers and the wider rural community in Ireland will benefit significantly from the "generous increases in social welfare payments". I had hoped that, instead of being on social welfare payments for the farming community, which is welcome and, in many cases, needed, the emphasis would have been on ways to promote, encourage and sustain agriculture. Recent reports indicate that, while farming is an important aspect of the economy, the industry will suffer in the future unless radical steps are taken to ensure its viability. Accordingly, I have concerns on the priority indicated by the inclusion of social welfare payments in the opening of the statement by the Minister.
Aside from social welfare payment increases, the Minister trumpets improvements to the rental income tax exemption for leasing of farmland. Again, the question arises of how much these improvements mean to our farmers. She estimates it at €2 million in a full year. Once again, this is reflective of the importance of agriculture today, as perceived by the Government.
The second best thing the Minister can say of this year's budget is that Irish farmers, who feed us all, are entitled to a tax break of €2 million a year. The Foresight report predicted that there would be only 10,000 full-time farmers by 2025. What the Minister should be doing is putting in place the provisions that will ensure that predictions do not come true. There are solutions proposed in that document and the Minister should be putting the emphasis on implementing them and the other recommendations rather than arguing against them and resisting them.
I welcome the extension of stamp duty relief for young trained farmers. The Minister said this will be worth about €19 million to Irish farmers. I welcome too the higher maximum "floating allowance" permitted for necessary pollution control facilities but once again I am aghast that the Minister should boast that is worth €1 million to Irish farmers.
Before I get on to biofuels, I emphasise to this House that the Minister for Agriculture and Food has proudly announced that the budget will, apart from social welfare payments, be worth around €24 million to Irish farmers. If that had been the amount of extra money in a budget in the 1950s provided to Irish farmers, we might have had some reason to be pleased, but these are not the 1950s. This is the 2006 budget and the Minister for Agriculture and Food is boasting that €24 million is being given to Irish farmers.
The year 2006 will be a time of unprecedented prosperity for most non-farming sectors of the economy but it will be a time of unprecedented pressures, financial and otherwise, being exerted upon Irish farmers. Next year will also be a time when certain parties will be absolutely determined to renege on the CAP reforms and do a deal in the context of the forthcoming WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong which will mean that Irish farmers, whose backs are already against the wall, will be put under even more pressure than they are currently under. The Government's response to this is a miserable €24 million.
If the Minister really cared about Irish farmers, she would probably have taken a strong stance against what was being offered in this budget on behalf of the portfolio she represents. The future of Irish farming is in doubt, not least because of this Government's refusal to offer real and effective support to the sector. For example, the prospect of biofuels and bio-ethanol farming offers a tantalisingly practical solution to many of the problems faced by Irish agriculture and the environment, yet this budget offers increased incentives only to the 100% biofuel products. Such products would require expensive vehicle conversions but the Minister can boast of nothing to support biofuels which are blended into existing fuels and do not require engines to be converted.
There is absolutely nothing in the budget for Irish food consumers or Irish food producers, or if there is, the Minister has been very silent and we have heard nothing about it. I have raised the issue of "food deserts" a number of times. It refers to people on low incomes, the elderly and the infirm, those who very often find it impossible to purchase healthy foods at a reasonable price. There are food deserts in our cities and in our countryside in which people are unable to travel to faraway supermarkets; food deserts in which pensioners who can only get to their local shops are being prevented from eating nutritious and appropriate food. The Minister for Agriculture and Food can find nothing in this year's budget to boast about which will help solve this problem, and the abolition of the groceries order is something with which we must concern ourselves. We must wait and see what will replace it, but Combat Poverty and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul have serious questions about the impact the abolition will have on the poorest and most vulnerable, and those furthest away from a cheap, reasonable and available source of nutritious food.
Apart from the agricultural and food aspects of this budget which are of some concern, there are other aspects which trouble me and my constituents. Already, constituents have pointed out to me that the gains to be made by old age pensioners and those on low incomes will be offset by the increases in the new year when Dublin City Council rents will increase. We welcome the extra allowances, but any gains made by people in that area will be rapidly offset. Those people will scarcely have time to evaluate the significance of the increase.
The budget does nothing for the homeless in my constituency. It does not provide for any increase in social housing, nor does it increase the cap on the capital assistance scheme for housing. Earlier during this Dáil term I was involved with homeless people trying to get back into third level education. As it turned out, they were able to get some funding, for which I am grateful, but it was a once-off payment given to them as a concession, and not written into the future. This is not what we want. This was a very unusual set of circumstances. I welcome the contribution and support given to those people but I would like assurances for the future that they do not have to go through the same worry which they did this year in order to access that third level college. At the best of times it is difficult for homeless people to get by. These people were particularly brave and enthusiastic enough to find their way into third level colleges. The idea that they then almost had to beg in order to access the meagre rent allowances and social welfare supports to keep them there is unacceptable. The last thing we need is for these people to be put in a situation where they have to drop out of the courses.
I appreciate the reinstatement of the fuel allowance for old age pensioners who live in local authority-provided accommodation with communal heating. Deputies Quinn, Broughan, I and other Dublin representatives raised that issue before. As it happened, a very small number of people found themselves in this particular bind. With some unacceptable enthusiasm, these people were deprived of their fuel allowance. I am glad to see that allowance reinstated and I acknowledge that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, has been generous in this respect. The reinstatement is very welcome. My concern is that it was ever removed from those people, who come to depend on what is a very meagre allowance, and that they had to endure the trauma. I also welcome the increases in the contributory and non-contributory pensions.
Turning again to matters which affect my constituents, Transport 21 was trumpeted with great acclaim, but there is a great big gap in the glitzy map which accompanies it, which I regret to say represents much of the Dublin South-Central area. This blank spot means our traffic jams will unfortunately persist beyond 2016.
I am also disappointed there is nothing in the budget with regard to educational disadvantage. I represent a constituency where there are some anomalous situations with regard to those who fall within the disadvantaged areas and who can access the benefits which go with the disadvantaged designation, and those who do not. For example, if one's school happens to be on a road which is not seen as disadvantaged, even though 80% of the pupils attending come from a disadvantaged area, the benefits and advantages are withheld. The Minister for Education and Science must look at this anomaly.
The PLCs seem to have been totally ignored in the budget. I welcome the investment and support for the third level and fourth level, as proposed. I am a great supporter of the importance of research and development in our very high educational standards and attainments, and appreciate the benefit of best quality graduates emerging from this country. However, there are other people in an educational bank, so to speak, who are not in the academic side of education and who do not wish to be. They should not be made to believe the academic route is the only one to take. There are people with other aspirations and other qualities and they should be given other career options.
My brief is agriculture and it is an area about which I am concerned. The budget is dismissive in regard to the major concerns that have been highlighted to my colleagues and me in recent months by the farming organisations and all those engaged in farming. Relatively little has been done for them in this budget.