Tuesday, 8 October 2019
Financial Resolutions - Budget Statement 2020
I will be sharing time with Deputies Danny and Michael Healy-Rae, Harty and Michael Collins.
I am happy to contribute briefly on the measures provided for in the non-event that was budget 2020. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, earlier framed his budget as having two strands. The first was to provide the extra steps we need to take into account the prospect of a no-deal Brexit and the second revolved around improving public services. He failed miserably to do either. One would have to have heard this to believe it, but the Minister began his Budget Statement by stating we have a well-run economy for which the Government is delivering responsible management. I do not know what planet he is on or that he thinks the people are on. This highlights the absolute fantasy land that the Minister and his colleagues are living in. Does the Minister think we can simply ignore the catastrophic explosion of costs associated with the diabolical project of the national children's hospital, which now stand at nearly €2 billion and are growing? The cost is the only thing that is growing because there is no sign of the hospital emerging out of the ground. It will never be finished. It will never take a child or grandchild from any of us in the Rural Independent Group because there will be no access to it.
Does the Minister think we can just ignore the expected rise in the cost of delivering the national broadband plan? Even the Taoiseach said recently that he welcomes the possibility of an inquiry by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Is he for real? He is the Taoiseach in charge of this and is hoping there will be Oireachtas inquiry. This will be another investigation, maybe even a tribunal, while the Taoiseach rides off into a big job in Europe along with Big Phil the enforcer.
At least €1.5 billion must be found in the national development plan in addition to the €800 million already allocated to the national broadband plan. The people who I represent in Tipperary, from Moneygall to Carrick-on-Suir and from Ballyporeen to Ballingarry, do not have broadband. It might be only four poles away, or 200 m away, but it might as well be in Mongolia for the good it does them. They have no broadband. Is this what the Minister meant when he talked about the responsible running of the economy? Kindergarten children would not have put such a thing in their speech because it is totally irresponsible and reckless.
The Government's reputation for prudent economic management is in tatters. Fine Gael used to have a record of fairly sound economic policy but it now lies in tatters. I do not believe that reputation was ever deserved. We can now see that no effective constraints were placed on the likes of the national children's hospital. The Minister also spoke today about the importance of carbon taxation and the measures to prevent it impacting on the poorest and most vulnerable and yet he did nothing about it.
While the Minister was on his feet, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul tweeted about the plan to defer carbon tax increases until May 2020. The plan to do that is a funny one, when one considers that there will probably be an election in April 2020. Does the Government think people will be fooled completely? The Government can try and pull the wool over their eyes again but their eyes are wide open now and their cataracts have been removed thanks to the buses organised by Deputies Michael and Danny Healy-Rae and Deputy Michael Collins. They know what is going on; they are no eejits. An increase of €6 in carbon tax means an increase of €1.02 on filling a car with 60 litres of petrol, €1.17 on filling a car with 60 litres of diesel and €1.44 per 40 kg bag of coal. There will be an increase of 31 cent for a bale of briquettes. It is an insult. A bale of briquettes is the smallest commodity people can buy and the Government hits the poor and marginalised people like that. Of course, Fine Gael was never interested in those people. This is a regressive tax that must urgently be reconsidered. There is simply not enough attention being paid to how this will hurt the most vulnerable.
I also remind the Minister and the Government that a carbon tax has already been in existence since 2010. The Government might think that, with Extinction Rebellion at the front and back gates of Leinster House, that this is a new tax. It has been there since 2010 and we have been bled with it. This tax, as we know, applies to certain fuels that we burn for heating, such as natural gas and heating oil, as well as for transport purposes in the form of petrol and diesel. All of us in rural Ireland must suffer and endure that tax because of the need for petrol and diesel. Since its introduction in 2010, the State has already taken in at least €2.8 billion in its tax on carbon and I want to make sure the public know that, although they do know because they feel it in their pockets every week.
In light of that, an argument could certainly be made that we are already contributing massive amounts of tax when it comes to carbon-generating activities. Every person in Ireland who puts petrol in his or her car or lights his or her cooker is in some measure already paying through the nose to offset the damage done by carbon to the tune of €400 million each year. The impression I get is that the Government wants us to forget about this and to start seeing this climate carbon tax as something new when, in reality, we have paying for almost a decade. The Government is not fooling the people. Although we have already given the Government almost €3 billion, we are still being treated as ecologically irresponsible and not contributing our fair share. That is disturbing.
People may well ask what right do they have to expect that any additional taxes can be justified, given the obvious failure of the existing carbon tax to implement new and effective strategies around climate change. The Climate Change Advisory Council has pointed to a need for an increase in carbon tax and the Government's climate action plan commits to the implementation of a carbon tax rate of at least €80 per tonne by 2030. God help us because this will have a devastating impact on many sectors of our economy. As the Parliamentary Budget Office has noted, an important aspect of the increasing carbon pricing is the role of the complementary supports to assist the increased burden on households on low incomes, who generally spend a higher proportion of their income on energy.
I am talking about marginalised people in the city and town, as well as rural dwellers. The Parliamentary Budget Office notes that ESRI research shows that low-income households can be compensated for increases in carbon tax. That is all fine on paper. Different compensation schemes include lump sum rebates, revenues for recycling through existing tax and welfare systems but we must see far more detail on these proposals, especially in their impact on hauliers. The rural hauliers are not at all happy. Fine Gael has its candidate selected, Verona Murphy, who did great work as a road haulier. I do not know what she thinks this evening. Will she be very happy with the party? The Government did a cobbled job on it, changing around bands and permissions and things that we do not understand, but the hauliers understand it because they know the prices and the impacts this will have on them. It is a most vital sector, especially as we face Brexit. Auto diesel accounts for 42% of carbon tax receipts. I was glad to hear the Minister commit to introducing a benefit in kind for commercial vehicles and additional rebates for relief for hauliers but it is highly convoluted and will put them in no better position. The haulage industry is a vital part in maintaining our economy. It has suffered serious setbacks in recent years. The increase in carbon tax on diesel must be balanced out by other supports for the industry or we will see the sector collapse. God help us then. Some months ago when I asked him about this issue, the Taoiseach told me they should get smaller vehicles. Think about it; that is some logic. Earlier, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, said as a Government, "we stand ready to act". For a brief moment I thought he had said "ready to axe". The Government is better at axing than acting although it has good actors too, except for acting in favour of the people. What this Government has been doing is taking the quality of life away from the people of rural Ireland, and indeed urban Ireland, and taking the axe to it. It is to hell or Connacht, Cromwell's old adage. The Government never ever looked after the daoine beaga, the little people. They are the ones being left to carry the burden of disproportionate and unfair measures. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, said that he is providing €42 million for a rescue and restructuring fund for the agrifood sector, €85 million for beef farmers, €14 million for fisheries - that would hardly look after one harbour and a couple of piers - €6 million for livestock farmers and the mushroom sector and €5 million for food and drinks. That all sounds fine and dandy but the beef sector is on its knees. The Government paid it some respect last week when it was supposed to appoint an independent chair but it appointed an insider, the former Secretary General of the Department that came up with most of the rules the farmers are trying to get rid of. The Government should be ashamed putting him in there. I mean nothing personal against the man but we needed someone independent with an independent mind. Of course we welcome the funding but it falls far short. The beef sector alone is a multi-billion euro industry that has been undermined completely by the inaction and lethargy of the Government and the Minister, Deputy Creed. I hear rumours that he might be retiring. He may retire because he is no damn good in the job anyway and no good to the farmers of rural Ireland. We know this because, as the Rural Independent Group's motion put it only two weeks ago, key commitments outlined in the programme for partnership Government, which we found hard to have included, were never acted upon. I lay the blame for that at the feet of the officials. The Government is not doing it and it is not insisting that the officials do it. The permanent government is in charge here. The members of the Government are only photo opportunity merchants and spin machines. Those commitments included introducing a framework for producer organisations, POs, and the development of POs in the beef sector to ensure that farmers are not just price takers but are price makers. We have a task force, not yet populated, where one of the usual suspects will chair that. Will they be independent? I will not use the language to answer that in front of An Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The fact is there was literally no progress on those commitments by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Indeed, it was a lack of leadership from the Department that created so much of the mess in which farmers found themselves and in which they continue to find themselves. We also heard about a €650 million package in the event of a no-deal Brexit for areas including tourism and the regions most affected. That is welcome but the hard fact remains that the regions outside Dublin have operated in a two-tier economic model for years. Brexit will be nothing new; it has been happening for years. The Government has allowed that model to continue, which is one of the key reasons rural Ireland still stands in need of such supports. The programme for Government, the negotiations for which we played a large part, promised rural-proofing of all legislation. The Government must have lost the text on the day that it went into office because it has not rural-proofed any legislation. It has done nothing.
The Minister said this budget was a bridge to a better economy. I would not like to go over that bridge. A bridge to nowhere might be more appropriate. Where, for example, is there any sense that the housing emergency is front and centre? The Minister barely mentioned it. He should ask Social Justice Ireland or Fr. Peter McVerry. He does not need to ask anyone, he could just walk down the streets of his own area. The Minister essentially covered the issue in a paragraph and only then with reference to funding for the Residential Tenancies Board, which I welcome but it is a paltry amount. To think this is a budget during a housing crisis affecting young children and it was just mentioned in a paragraph. The Residential Tenancies Board needs support but it is so woefully lacking in imagination and ambition that I think people in housing emergencies will just despair. What else could they do? The housing agency, Respond!, has said of the Minister's help to buy scheme that its continuation in its current form will only benefit high-income earners, while low and middle-income earners are not in the picture again. The Government does not care about them and never did. That is a damning assessment and highlights yet again how the poorest and the most vulnerable are being targeted by this Dublin-centric and out-of-touch Government. It is also rich-centric and well-off-centric with an attitude of to hell with the daoine beaga and to hell with the poor. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, also mentioned a €1 billion package of measures for business and SMEs. This is welcome but it totally avoids one of the root costs that cripple SMEs everywhere, every day of the week, namely, the payment of rates. It is killing them and businesses get nothing for them. There was a time when one paid the rates and received sewerage and the house gritted with a bag of salt if there was ice but people get absolutely sweet FA for rates now. They are expected to pay them and shut up. They are a penal rate of tax. We looked forward to some revaluations recently but all we got was petrol stations being nearly crippled with rates increasing by multiples. We need to see the rapid introduction of measures that will provide greater charging flexibility on this issue for local authorities, which is not there.
On health, the Minister announced the introduction of medical cards for children under eight years and others, which will benefit 56,000 citizens. I hope he consulted with GP bodies about this because when the free under six years card was introduced, the National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP, warned that it would lead to major capacity issues and create significant amounts of additional stress for GPs. Deputy Harty behind me knows all about that. Will GPs be provided with parallel levels of support to enable them to implement this policy? No, they will not; it just looks grand but it will clog up the surgeries and people can wait. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and the Taoiseach are just saying "let them eat cake". The same goes for the carers and the proposal to introduce 1 million additional home help hours. Where is the recruitment process for this? When will it begin? The Government might as well introduce 10 million hours because there is an embargo on recruiting any new carers. These wonderful people get up early in the morning and could visit perhaps seven or eight different households, doing half an hour here and half an hour there. They are committed and work strenuously. There are sick people, such as cancer patients, being released from hospital who cannot get any home care packages because of the ban on recruitment. There is no point in saying there will be a million extra hours without lifting the recruitment ban. We should be given the figures of how many people have left the service because of stress and overwork. How many people have retired and how many people are working now? It is a total con job and the Government should be ashamed. I salute the carers and Councillor Richie Molloy in Clonmel, who manages the Family Carers Ireland centre in south Tipperary. The carers came in to lobby the Government but they may as well have gone out to the Knockmealdowns for a walk; the Government cares nothing about them. Has the Government factored in the loss of those carers and home help assistants that have left the system and if not, why not? The Government thinks it can fool us with figures. Carers in my own county provide a quarter of a million hours care per week, an average of 42.1 hours per carer. That is staggering, and then there is talk of a four-day week. I do not know what planet the Government is on. We need to see our carers supported by real concrete action like access to emergency and other forms of respite. They do not need pie in the sky commitments that are meaningless but sound good on budget day. A million extra hours sounds great - does the Minister think people will fall for it? The Minister also said he was bringing the education budget to €11 billion in 2020, an increase of €2 billion since 2016. I hope this includes movement on raising the capitation grant, which is so badly needed.
The Minister of State is aware of all of the schools in south Kilkenny. Will the Minister of State also not accept that tens of millions of euro of that budget is spent on renting prefabs? Why can the Government not sort this out for once and for all? There is an excellent prefab manufacturing company in the Minister of State's own constituency.
I have found out through my parliamentary questions that the Department has paid in excess of €83 million just to cover the costs of renting units during the period 2011 to 2015 which is a staggering amount. Why are the officials, the mandarins and the Minister within the Department not able to sort this out? Anybody knows who was educated in a prefab building, as I was myself, that these are not suitable for education and tuition. They are like roast boxes during the summer and iceboxes during the winter. There is no doubt that further tens of millions of euro have disappeared from the education budget due to the cost of these.
While I welcome the efforts being made to decrease the amount of prefabs being used in our schools, I also find it extraordinary that we have centrally invested almost €100 million to keep our children in what are often unsuitable and poorly constructed accommodation.
The figures given to me by the Minister do not even take account of the ancillary costs associated with maintaining the prefabs, with the stick up and patching jobs that the parents councils have to fund raise for on a daily basis. What is clear is that according to the Government's own figures, the need for schools is not being met. Under the Department prefab replacement initiatives, approval was given to just under 217 schools, 209 primary schools and eight post-primary schools to replace 614 prefab units with permanent accommodation. Of the total of 217 approved schools projects, only 170 have been completed. These prefabs are falling down, leaking, broken and dangerous. I simply cannot accept that it is beyond the wit of the Government to draw up an intensive school-building programme that would serve not only to improve class conditions, but also lead to employment in the building sector, which this Government seems to be hellbent against. Giving procurement priority to local firms would also help local economies and school areas.
The Irish Primary Principals' Network is also overwhelmed with regulations. Principals need a break and I support them. They need time to do their jobs because they are being destroyed with fatigue and pressure. There were 40 different directives issued to them last year and they are expected to be abreast of all of them as well as to teach. We need to recognise that: mol an óige agus tiocfaidh siad. We should look after the very young, from the cradle to the grave but this Government is forgetting most of them. We must remember that these children and teachers are already operating against a backdrop of a school environment where our average class size at primary level is three pupils higher than the OECD average as well as being above the OECD average for pupil-teacher ratio. This Government did nothing there either.
Mar fhocal scoir, stamp duty is a disaster for farmers and for anyone struggling to buy back their home. They must form one of these companies now to try and meet the banks and get their home back from the vulture funds. One of the Minister of State's predecessors said that the vulture funds were necessary in Ireland. I know what vultures are when sheep are lambing. They will take the eyes out of the heads of the lambs before they are born. What a horrible connotation but the Government will find when it goes to the people about the merciless way it treated them.