Tuesday, 8 October 2019
Financial Resolutions - Budget Statement 2020
I thank the Minister of State for being here this afternoon.
This is no reflection on the Minister of State who is present in any way but it was the tradition in this House that during the main budget speeches on budget day, the Taoiseach or the Minister for Finance or, in the past few years, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform would be in the Chamber to listen to the speeches delivered. It is shocking that a tradition has now emerged that it is acceptable not to be here. As a House this is something that we have to deal with and reflect upon. It does not look good for the Government that it prefers to be outside spinning in the media doing whatever it is doing, instead of listing to the contributions here in the Chamber. I already have had one bad episode in the past week where a Minister refused to come in to answer a question and this is another example.
On behalf of everybody in this House, I thank the Lord this is the last budget of this Government. Not anybody, even on the Government side, could have another one. We are tinkering towards the end and this marks the end of the arrangement in place between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. This budget demonstrates that the Government is politically impotent and has been sterilised to inaction. This is a budget that actually does nothing. If anything, it will make things an awful lot worse. For all the hype of this year's budget, it is crystal clear that this is a budget for the very few and only for those on higher incomes.
Given the arrangement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, what we have in respect of social welfare is astounding. No increases to deal with inflation and Brexit, which obviously will create additional costs for people, have been provided. This is astonishing. It tells me of the position of the famous Deputy Willie O'Dea within the Fianna Fáil Party. He obviously was not able to push it that hard this year. It is worrying for me that Fianna Fáil rolled over and did not push for increases to meet inflation in social welfare. I will return to this point.
This then brings me to the Independent Alliance, who had their bellies tickled and who came into line over changes in the medical card allowances. I was watching with great humour over the last four or five days how the Independent Alliance Ministers were running around the place, trying to jump in front of cameras again, not knowing but really knowing that RTÉ were outside to watch them, and pretending that they were very important. Everybody in this Chamber knows that the Independent Alliance had about as much leverage on this budget as anyone. The simple fact is that it did not matter what was going to put forward, they had no choice but to vote for it. The idea that they had a huge impact on this budget is completely and utterly laughable in the extreme.
We already know that the Government is incapable of managing capital spending. We have had a cover-up of €200 million plus, based on the children's hospital, the public services card and broadband. We are aware of this but we can also see here again this year, because it is cyclical, that it also cannot manage current funding. Year on year, there is no reform of the same mistakes. The same mistakes are made and are reliant on the same tax take from certain areas to fill the gaps in other areas. We go on and on. We continue on and on with the overspending, the dependence on corporation taxes and the non-sustainable practices.
This is no more true than in the case of health. From a health perspective, this budget is absolutely dire because it does not start the reform programme we all know must happen. Sláintecare happened because many of us in this House, myself included, spent 11 months writing up a cross-party agreement but the commitment to that agreement has to be actioned. We have had another three budgets and the reform is not happening. It is not happening because ultimately, the Government is not committed to it or to the consensus that was reached. When it comes to the transitional fund that is required to turn around the health service, to make it public and community-facing and to ensure we can restructure the health service in order that the acute system is not under so much pressure, it simply cannot happen because of actions taken by the Government.
More than 3,000 midwifery and nursing posts are vacant at present. This budget will do nothing to do deal with the recruitment ban that is obviously in place. The increases that have been put forward for nurses and other medical professionals will simply deal with demographic changes. That is, by the way, a consistent line across this budget. Many of the increases the Government is shouting about will only deal with demographic increases.
That is the simple truth of the matter. It is not a real increase. It is actually only to meet demographic profiling, of which the Government is well aware, but it sells it as an increase. However, it is only included to allow us to stand still. The increases being talked about by the Government are only to enable us to stand still. That needs to be made very clear.
We cannot continue with the current set-up in acute hospitals. What is happening in that regard is criminal. The situation at University Hospital Limerick demonstrates this the most. It is disgraceful. The hospital needs a €40 million current expenditure recalibration just to be the same as Beaumont Hospital in Dublin. That is €40 million per year to have the same number of beds and the same number of doctors, nurses and health professionals. University Hospital Limerick barely has a half-functioning CT scanner. In the past two weeks I had to beg it to buy a new one. Perhaps it is now renting one. That is the scale of it, but what does the Government do? It goes back to the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, which puts more money into private practice. It is more money for the Government to buy its way out of the fact that it has no capacity to solve the problem. There is no commitment to Sláintecare and the recalibration to which I refer. The Government is just throwing money at the problem again and, I dare say it, is being supported by Fianna Fáil. Throwing money at the private health sector is short-termism and it has gone on for four budgets in a row. This is the fourth budget in a row that the Government has thrown money at the NTPF to bury a little bit of the problem, with no reform whatsoever.
The Government's proposal for GP visit cards is a laugh. The next budget will be announced next October, yet GP visit cards for under-eights will be provided next September. Will the Leas-Cheann Comhairle create some rules to deal with this kind of pulling the wool over people's eyes? It was announced that the GP cards would be available for children under the age of eight years but in 11 months' time. The measure will not happen in the budget cycle of the Government as it will not be within an ass's roar of this place by then. It will be long gone. The measure is not even budgeted for in the figures included in the documentation provided today, which shows how irrelevant it is. The proposal will not happen. It is a commitment given, on which the Government has no intention of following through because no costing has been provided for it.
On the provision of medical cards for people who are terminally ill, I see that the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, has announced that he is doing something about the matter. He said he had asked the HSE to deal with it. I want to make a commitment to Mr. John Wall who has fought for this measure for the last year and to whom I spoke earlier today. I have got to know him quite well and admire him. He is a man with a terminal illness and wants to know where the measure is budgeted for. It is either budgeted for or it is not. It cannot just be a case of asking the HSE and it coming back in a few weeks to state it can do it. The provision of medical cards for terminally ill patients is either covered by a budget line or it is not. If it is, where is it covered? A 24-month profile is probably what is needed because we have to have some way of dealing with the matter. I want to see where provision is made and want to see the details. Until I see them, it does not exist and I want it to. I want the Minister to show it to me. I will congratulate him on the specific item if he does, but I cannot see it. I want it to be proved that provision has been made.
I now turn to the issue of home help hours. We welcome the increase. I speak about this issue all of the time. Until we have a registered employment agreement for people who work in this sector, we will always have these problems. People cannot afford to work in it. That is the real issue. There are many people who want to work it but cannot afford to do so. The idea that a person should go for half an hour to one couple and then half an hour to another is just ridiculous. The actual figure brought forward will not even bring us to where we need to be in 2019. It is way behind.
There is nothing in the budget to increase hospital bed numbers, a problem which we all know is at epidemic proportions. There is also nothing in the budget for hospital consultants and to deal with the issue of pay equalisation. Given the volume of consultants, the issue is chronic. They are being educated in Ireland and then leaving. There is nothing in the budget to deal with the ambulance programme or maintain GPs, especially those in rural areas who are constantly leaving. The core issues are not being dealt with across the health provisions.
I support the national maternity strategy 100%. Nobody supports it as much as I do and I have commended it consistently. It is costing €70 million to €80 million, but we are way behind. It cannot be met. As a requirement, the figure is averaging at some €8 million per year. The Government cannot find even the €1 million needed for the design stage to progress the new maternity hospital project in Limerick, while it tells us that the national children's hospital has had no impact on other projects. What a laugh.
All Members of the House support the national cancer strategy, but there will be extra costs, given the review by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, RCOG, and the implementation of the report on cervical cancer, with other changes. It is, therefore, very disappointing to see no further commitment being given in that regard.
The changes to out-of-pocket expenses that have been brought about by the Government are welcome, but, again, it will not happen until next July which is a long time after the Government will have existed. We talk about reform. Perhaps we could start by reforming the budgetary process in order that we would not have these false announcements across a spectrum of areas.
I would pay to be at the media briefing with the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris; I am sorry, I mean the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. I would definitely pay if it was the former. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, dealt with the issue of housing in a way that was just routine. Because it was dealt with in such a routine manner it amplified and demonstrated that Fine Gael really had no commitment to the provision of social and affordable housing. There is nothing in the budget to help young people to buy their own home, to deal with the issue of affordability or, most of all, to deal with the issue of rents. A few bob is given to the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB. I find it incredible that the Minister announced an allocation of €2 million for the RTB. He needed to announce it in his Budget Statement because he had nothing else to say on housing. That is the reality. In normal circumstances an increase of €2 million for any agency would not see the light of day in a Budget Statement, but the Minister had to announce it because he had to balance things out by saying something on housing, given that he had nothing else to say. By God, he had damn all interest in it, which was quite clear from what he had to say.
The measures on real estate investment trusts, REITs, tax avoidance are absolutely welcome. I found it amazing, however, that the Minister admitted that he knew about it all along. Because of the necessity for a revenue raising measure, he will now tackle the issue. That tells me that he and his officials knew about it all along, that they did not have much of a problem with it ideologically and now that they need money, they will deal with it. That is the bottom line.
The rent pressure zones are not working. There was an opportunity in this budget for the Government to deal with the issue of rents and bring forward innovative measures to freeze rents. Of all people in this House, I know how ideologically opposed Fine Gael is to such a measure.
Capital for building has been provided by way of an approximate €60 million increase. However, it is nowhere near enough. It has nothing at all to do with the provision of affordable housing, in which the Government has no interest.
The houses that have been built and that people are moving into were announced by Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and me.
Turning to social welfare, I do not know where the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, disappeared to during the budget negotiations. She obviously disappeared, given what has been announced. It is just a theory, but maybe she was put in the bold corner because of the public services card and she got this as a result. That there is no cost of living increase in weekly rates for carers, pensioners, those with disabilities, widows, widowers and other recipients is unacceptable and utterly wrong. While I welcome the changes in the living alone allowance, the Government did not have the guts to announce an increase in the minimum wage and will wait until March to do so. Why could the Government not announce it in this budget? It has made enough announcements about things that will not happen until long after it is gone. The least it could have done was increase the minimum wage to the recommended level of €10.10.
People who are dependent on social welfare - the elderly and the vulnerable - are losing in this budget. They are in the negative and way worse off because of the impacts of Brexit, inflation and a multitude of other issues, including the carbon tax and a lack of other measures to deal with that issue. The Minister of State supports a Government that has ensured that the most vulnerable and the elderly will be worse off. It is pretty easy to see that. Just bring out a calculator. A seven year old could work it out. The vulnerable and the elderly will be worse off because of measures that the Independent Alliance has signed off on today with Fine Gael, working in conjunction with Fianna Fáil. That is an indisputable fact. The reality is inflation, Brexit, carbon taxes and a lack of a €5 increase.
Regarding climate change, my issue with the carbon tax is that it needs to change people's behaviour, but this just looks like something the Government knew it had to do, so it threw it in in the belief it would decide what to do after ring-fencing it. There is no plan for the carbon tax and how it will be used. If there was a plan, we should see it in the budget.
A €2 increase in the fuel allowance is a laugh. This is another issue for the Minister of State, so I am glad he came to the Chamber. One in five families does not get the fuel allowance. How will such families net off the increase in the carbon tax? How will we ensure that they do not get caught in the poverty trap? I can see no measures in the budget to deal with that issue. The just transition as profiled in the budget is a pittance.
Some other things are thrown into the budget, including €9 million for greenways. That amount will only cover one greenway. It might be enough for a large capital project in a major city. The electric car element is a laugh. Someone must buy a car for €50,000 to get €10,000 off. He or she would need to have €40,000 hanging around in the first place to buy an electric car. The Minister of State should talk to his colleague, who is one of the super rich few who can buy one. It is a laugh.