Dáil debates

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Financial Resolutions - Budget Statement 2020


3:25 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source

These are the simple choices to be made. It is not fantasy economics and has nothing to do with Brexit. It is about the choices Sinn Féin would have made which, unfortunately, the Minister did not. He is showing the ideological position of Fine Gael, whereby he has put the interests of the elites above the interests of ordinary people. Instead of tackling the inequality in our society and ensuring those most able to shoulder the burden pay their fair share, including the banks, international investors and the super rich, the Minister has chosen to distil his entire climate action plan into a regressive tax on households. The increase in carbon tax is no panacea to the climate crisis. It is a box-ticking exercise. Taxes are implemented to serve one of two purposes, either to change behaviour or to raise revenue. As it stands, the carbon tax has brought in €400 million every year since it was introduced, but it has not effected any real change in the behaviour of citizens or the policies of the Government. This is because behavioural change can only take place when there are alternatives available. Alternatives require investment. This means serious investment in public transport, renewable energies and energy-efficient homes at a level that will meet the scale of the crisis we face. That is where the Government is falling down and going with an approach that will fail to get the support of the people who need to buy into the idea of the opportunities that are available in the transition we need to make as a country because of climate change.

Sinn Féin has shown how additional revenue could be raised through progressive taxation, closing loopholes and making sure those who can pay do pay their fair share. Instead, the Government has chosen to increase the carbon tax by €6 per tonne and take €90 million out of peoples' pockets. This is a measure that is recognised by the Department and the Economic and Social Research Institute to be regressive. They tell us very loudly and clearly that the measure the Minister is introducing today, supported by Fianna Fáil, will hit the poorest households hardest. They tell us that rural areas will suffer the most and that the worst off will be single parents. It will not change people's behaviour; all it will do is make them poorer. That is the reality of the measure the Minister has introduced.

Electric charging points here and there and tokenistic increases under grant schemes will not cut it. This does not pass as meaningful climate action, given the scale of the threat posed by climate breakdown. It is definitely not the just transition spoken about in the Minister's Budget Statement. Sinn Féin has again put forward effective, radical and realistic alternatives in meeting the climate challenge, but increasing carbon taxes seems to be the only answer of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to the climate crisis. It is a tax on low income households and the most vulnerable in our society and does not offer alternatives or adequate respite.

Every year, as the budget approaches, lone parents, jobseekers, parents raising families, children, citizens with disabilities and carers who are our most vulnerable and rely on social security supports hope for an increase in their payment rates. This is because they know that the current rates are simply inadequate and do not protect households or children from poverty. Had the Minister listened to what Sinn Féin had put forward for many years, he would have taken our approach. He would have taken the political football out of this issue and responded to need based on evidence. Had he done so, he would have found out that these rates needed to increase. The social welfare package announced by the Government today is less than one third of that proposed by Sinn Féin. It fails to give families, lone parents, carers and people with disabilities the break they badly need. The Government's approach is to tweak at the edges of lots of schemes. This will enable it to make lots of announcements, but it will not give people the break they need across the board. What was needed was a €5 increase in all weekly rates and, to recognise the increase in the costs associated with disability, a €9 increase in disability payments. That is what the Minister could have done. We showed him how he could have delivered this, but, instead, he decided to go with a minimal approach. By doing so, he has ensured those who rely on social supports will receive a substandard income that will not allow them to meet their own needs and those of their families. Sinn Féin's priorities for social protection focus on those in our society who live in deep income inadequacy, including lone parent families and families with older children. Déantar measúnú ar an tsochaí bunaithe ar conas a thacaíonn muid leis na daoine is laige sa phobal, mar a deir an seanfhocal.

Despite today's announcement, many young jobseekers under the age of 26 years will continue to receive a reduced payment based on age discrimination which was introduced by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party in 2009 and doubled down by Fine Gael and the Labour Party in the years that followed. Those aged between 18 and 24 years receive up to €90 less in their weekly payment than somebody over the age of 26. Sinn Féin would restore the full rate, regardless of age, within two years. This is the commitment the Minister should be giving to young people because it is the right thing to do. The Government will try to make much of what it has announced today on jobseekers allowance for those aged between 18 and 25 years. It may even claim to be restoring it to the full rate, but it is not. All we have to do is to look at the figures and they do not lie. The Government is allocating €5.2 million for jobseekers allowance for those aged under 26 years, but we know that the cost of restoring full pay equality is €59.9 million, more than ten times what has been allocated. This is minimalist and does not treat the young people who find themselves depending on social welfare with the respect they deserve.

We know from CSO data that lone parent families experience consistent poverty at a rate five times higher than other families. These are the people who are most likely to experience deprivation. We have continually argued for the establishment of a child maintenance service, similar to that available in the North. Again, the Government has failed to make any allocation for it. We know that child maintenance payments reduce child poverty, something the Government has abjectly failed to achieve. This failure is felt by one in five children in Ireland who live in poverty. What we have argued for and what the Minister could have done is an increase in the cut-off point for the one-parent family payment scheme. We want to ensure lone parent families are properly supported to care for their children up to the age of 14 years, instead of forcing them into poverty when their child turns seven. This cut which was introduced by the Labour Party has not been reversed, despite clear evidence that it has led to increased deprivation for lone parent families. The working family payment was set up to support working parents with children. The existing threshold of 19 hours per week means that many lone parents, often women, who work while raising a family on their own, typically miss out on this support. What we needed to hear about in the budget and what Sinn Féin advocated was the provision of support for these working parents through reducing the threshold to 15 hours.

Understanding the costs families and parents face, what was required was a €5 boost to the qualified child increase for children over the age of 12 years. In our alternative budget we proposed an annual double payment of child benefit to be paid in the summer to recognise the high cost of going back to school. I outlined, for example, how the Minister could have funded this measure. We also proposed extending child benefit to cover 18 year olds still in school. This would have given families a break, but the Government has offered little or nothing to these families or those on low incomes.

More than one quarter of all workers are on low pay. Ireland has the third highest proportion of low paid workers in the developed world. In a country with soaring rents, rip-off insurance premiums and runaway childcare costs, Leo's republic of opportunity does not reward work. Sinn Féin wants to change this. We want to make work pay and ensure it will deliver a decent standard of living for everyone.

That is why Sinn Féin is proudly the living wage party. The Government should be appalled that, as families and workers face into the mouth of Brexit, it has left them high and dry. It has deprived them of the minimum wage increase they deserve. It is unbelievable the Minister is not enacting a minimum wage increase as soon as possible. As costs continue to soar and with a no-deal Brexit on the doorstep, the Government has once again abandoned ordinary people.

At the weekend the Irish Hospital Consultants Association voted no confidence in the Minister for Health. The consultants joined Sinn Féin which voted no confidence in the Minister in February, despite opposition from Fianna Fáil which kept him in his post. He is a Minister who lacks the authority, inclination or experience to deliver timely, quality hospital care for patients. He has increasingly become complacent and deaf to the suffering of patients. These are not my words but those of hospital consultants at the weekend. They said it because the public health system was not working. Nearly 700,000 people languish on hospital waiting lists. Over 10,000 patients were on hospital trolleys last month. These figures are unsustainable. The Government is breaking records for all the wrong reasons. It continues to fail patients, doctors, nurses and staff in the health system. Most importantly, it is failing health services. Too many people cannot afford to see their GP. Instead they hedge their bets, refusing to visit their GP until they suffer from more ailments to justify the expense incurred. This is the stupidity that cuts across the dysfunctional health service.

Lack of access to primary care services increases costs and waiting lists in hospitals. The budget could have delivered real improvements in the primary care system if the Government had been willing to make the right choices. As well as directly employing additional GPs in the public system and delivering pay equalisation for consultants, Sinn Féin would have provided for two free GP visits for every citizen in the State. That would have lifted the burden of sickness from workers and families. It would begin on a path towards having a health service that would deliver for patients based on their needs, rather than their ability to pay, ag dul i dtreo seirbhís sláinte atá in ann freastal ar riachtanais an othair.

Over 7,000 people are waiting for home support care. Apparently, we are supposed to congratulate Fianna Fáil on this because, in the words to Deputy Cowen, it fought hard to deliver this measure. The Minister has announced today that the Government will provide an additional 1 million home help hours. Does Deputy Cowen know that it does not even clear the waiting list? Does he know that it requires 2.5 million hours to deal with the 7,300 people on waiting lists? Yet we are supposed to pat Deputy Cowen and the Minister on the back for this measure. The Government is planning on heading into next year without being able to even deal with the level of demand in 2019, never mind the fact that there will be additional pressure next year. We have figures from the Department of Health which show that it costs €25 million to provide an additional 1 million hours, but €59 million, for which we provided in our alternative budget, to clear the waiting lists. Why does the Minister set himself up for failure? The people about whom Deputy Cowen so eloquently talked are not having their needs met. He and his colleagues, with the Minister's support, have completely failed the people in question. This is another example of the Government's priorities. Worse still is the spin from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil as if we are supposed to clap them on the back for setting up these individuals for failure. An investment of €59 million is required to clear the waiting lists, not €24 million to deliver an extra 1 million hours. When Deputy Cowen was going into Government Buildings, he should have lifted the telephone and we would have told him what was needed to deal with the issue.

The problem is that the Government has not dealt with the crisis we are facing in the health service. It is breaking new records, with overcrowding and capacity issues. This morning in my local hospital there were 33 patients on trolleys. Down the corridor is a ward with beds that are unopened. However, the Government has not announced any measure to open hospital beds or recruit the additional support staff required to do so. The only measure in the budget to tackle the capacity crisis in the health service is the Fianna Fáil measure, which is to pump more money into the private sector with another €25 million for the National Treatment Purchase Fund, which is not about increasing capacity in the service. The Minister is spectacularly failing those patients, their families and the workers in the health service who are at the end of their teether because of the pressure they are under. The Minister has done nothing for them with the measures he has announced today.

There could have been serious investment. The Minister could have done as Sinn Féin proposed and opened 500 closed hospital beds, recruited the additional nurses needed, ensured pay equalisation for consultants, provided for investment in primary care services by giving all families access to two free GP visits a year and much more. The Government could have done this if it had been willing to make the right political choices, but it has failed time and again. It has also failed on the national cancer care strategy, the national maternity strategy, the national trauma strategy and the national ambulance reform plan. A total of €8 million has been allocated for these four areas. The national maternity strategy needs €75 million in the next ten years, which works out at least €7.5 million each year. That is what is required, but, unfortunately, the Government has again failed spectacularly.

Every day our attention is drawn to the housing crisis. Renters have to hand one third of their pay packet to their landlord. Families and couples are struggling to find a home they can afford. Homelessness figures have reached their most disturbing levels. Rents continue to rise, with no sign of letting up. The housing crisis has become wrapped up in statistics and figures, instead of focusing on the people behind the statistics and the real solutions. Let us face some facts. Things are no better now than they were last year. Last year Fianna Fáil Members were telling us how they had delivered the housing budget and how it was going to make a big change. We are no better off than we were last year; indeed, many are far worse off. Over 10,000 people were recorded as homeless at the end of August for the seventh month in a row. That was after Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had concocted last year's so-called housing budget. This is the Brexit budget; last year it was the housing budget. Nearly 4,000 of those individuals are children. The number of children who are homeless has increased by 365% during a period of five years of economic growth. That is why I ask: who is the economy is serving? It is serving the bankers, the international investors, the REITs and the Irish real estate funds, IREFs. It is serving the highly paid when they get their SARPs and avail of other tax loopholes. However, it is not serving the ordinary people whom it should be serving. There are now children growing up in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. We have come a long way from the promise of the Republic. These faceless figures hide the hidden homeless. Young people have returned to the homes of their parents to raise their families. There are stories behind the numbers. Tenants still face rip-off rents that are rising faster than their incomes. It now costs more than €1,700 a month to rent in Dublin and the picture is not much better elsewhere. Young people are locked out of secure and affordable accommodation, whether they hope to own or rent. It is better to be a vulture fund or international property investor in today’s Ireland than a worker or a family planning for the future. This is no country for young people. They have driven social change and broadened our horizons, but the Government has lowered theirs, which is a terrible legacy.

The housing system is broken and the Government should have taken the first steps today to fix it. In the midst of a housing crisis, how much has it allocated for additional capital investment? It has only allocated €60 million. One could not make it up. It is appalling and sends a clear signal to all those who are struggling with rent, house prices and the issue of homelessness and the problem is escalating. We have rising homelessness and runaway rents.

This is not a budget for tenants or workers or families trying to get on the property ladder. This is a budget with no additional targets for social housing, with build and acquisition targets unchanged and no affordable homes to be delivered in 2020. With land hoarding contributing to the a new crisis, there has been no increase in the vacant site levy, a gift to developers who sit on land and drive up land and house prices. What this budget does deliver is significant increases, as we would expect from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, in subsidies for private landlords, with funding spending on HAP and RAS, at least twice as big as funding for social housing. Once again, this is a budget for landlords. With an additional €20 million allocated for homelessness services, it seems this Government has acknowledged that homelessness with continue to increase. The Minister should never say the Government is investing in homelessness. One does not invest in homelessness. We need to eradicate, not invest in, homelessness. That is the problem. The Government sees it as an industry and see the business that has developed around it. The Government has acknowledged through this allocation that homelessness figures will continue to increase. In short, this is not a budget for renters or anyone looking for a home.

The only thing Fianna Fáil has to show from this budget is a botched help-to-buy scheme that has failed to deliver on any of its objectives. It will cost €100 million in 2020, €40 million more than has been allocated for social housing. We have spent €200 million on this measure already. The Parliamentary Budget Office stated that 40% of that money was not needed. Some people did not need the support to get a deposit. That means approximately €80 million of this grant went into the pockets of people who were highly paid and did not need the grant to get onto the property ladder. It also demonstrates clearly that 80% of the properties were bought for in excess of €375,000, benefitting high income earners, not low and middle-income workers. Fianna Fáil does what it typically does - continue to extend property-related tax breaks. Fine Gael told us it would be different but, unfortunately, it has buckled on this again.

We had Bliain na Gaeilge anuraidh. Má fhéachaimid ar an airgead atá curtha ar fáil d'Údarás na Gaeltachta agus don phlean teanga, beidh sé soiléir go bhfuil €1 milliún i gceist ó thaobh cúrsaí caipitil agus €1 milliún i gceist ó thaobh cúrsaí reatha. Ní théann an t-airgead seo fada go leor. Tá Údarás na Gaeltachta ag rá linn go bhfuil bearna de €10 milliún in aghaidh na bliana i gceist leis an údarás a reáchtáil, agus go bhfuil €5 milliún sa bhreis ag teastáil fá choinne na tograí caipitil atá idir lámha acu. Tá an Rialtas ag cinntiú nach bhfuil go leor airgid tugtha don Ghaeltacht agus go mbeidh sé fágtha ar an trá fholamh arís. Once again, this Government is failing on this.

The Government has done nothing on the high cost of childcare. It needs to start to take steps to reduce the burden on ordinary families. It needs to be a crisis in government, not just in the home where people have children going to the childcare setting. We are paying among the highest childcare costs in the world. The price has gone up to €184 per week. We have shown how the Government can transform that through a five-year transformational programme beginning this year when we could have reduced the cost of childcare per child per month by €100 by making the additional investment that is required. The Government has completely failed these families on this. Childcare costs will continue to increase year on year as they have done every year under this Government.

This is a do-nothing budget from a do-nothing Government. This time Brexit is the excuse for a Government that is out of ideas and out of time. When we subtract what has been taken from what has been given, this budget has delivered very little for workers and families. This is not the budget Sinn Féin would have delivered. Sinn Féin would have would have brought forward real and deliverable solutions, putting citizens, not vested interests, at the centre of our economy. Ordinary people would have been at the top of our priorities. That would have tackled the rip-off costs faced by countless families, sky-high insurance premiums, extortionate rents and eye-watering childcare or back-to-school costs. These could have been dealt with in this budget. That would have raised incomes and made sure that work delivered a secure standard of living necessary to meet families' needs and given workers and families a break. That would have been our priority. It must be the role of the State in promoting the development of an economy that serves everyone and all to take a side and take a stand for what is right and good. There are values we all must abide by, stepping up and providing where there are failings, rectifying wrongs where they have happened and taking charge where the State has abdicated its responsibility. Unfortunately, this budget has failed to deliver on these values. Sinn Féin will continue to lead the way and one day, perhaps, the Government will listen.


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