Thursday, 17 December 2020
Appropriation Bill 2020: Second and Subsequent Stages
To be helpful to Deputy Ó Snodaigh, in one of the more memorable answers I got to a question on the very same matter when Alan Shatter was Minister, namely, what the €2 million for the Secret Service was actually spent on, he informed me that it was a secret. Maybe the Minister will echo that response.
This end-of-year accounting exercise, as it is being presented, is quite a fascinating and perhaps eye-watering discussion. This is everything. It is all the money - the billions of euro that were spent, and will be spent in January, across all Departments, current and capital. It is worth reflecting on a very important macro economic point. It has been a point of dispute and debate over the past decade or two and ,indeed, a matter of dispute and debate in what is often called an ideological discussion, namely, what is a legitimate economic strategy. Some people want to pretend there was no crash at all in 2008 and that it was all just a bad dream about bank bailouts, bondholders and gambling banks and the austerity that followed and that we should just forget about it and imagine that it did not happen. A much more serious debate would be to ask whether we have learned something from the contrast between the approach that was taken in the post-2008 period in response to an economic cataclysm and the approach taken in the past year in the face of Covid-19. We really should let that lesson sink in. In 2008, faced with an economic cataclysm, we made a decision to bail out the senior bondholders, the global and international investors who had financed banks, gambled on property and crashed the economy. Working people were asked to pay the bill. The consequence was dire hardship and austerity. The long-term legacy was a housing crisis that is still with us, a public health service that is chronically understaffed and teetered on the brink at the beginning of this pandemic and a decade-long recession. This time around, under pressure because the people would not have taken it again, we made a different decision. It was decided, to some degree at least, to bail out working people, support them and to invest additional expenditures in public health services, in housing, etc. We should look at the net effect of things we were told were impossible in the period after 2008, that were "fantasy economics". God almighty, I remember that phrase being repeated endlessly. It was fantasy economics, for us, as we did in budget submission after budget submission, to propose adjustments upwards in current and capital expenditure of €10 billion to €20 billion for health services, etc. Yet, here, in this Appropriation Bill, we have precisely that. There is €17 billion in additional expenditure, which we were told was a fantasy before. What was the consequence of that? It sustained the country through an extremely difficult pandemic, which we are still going through, and it produced economic growth. It did not produce a decade-long recession; it produced economic growth.
One would think that lesson would be absorbed and that people would put up their hands and say they got it wrong the last time, that approach was a disaster, they made a bad situation worse and they would learn the lessons of what happened in the past year. Indeed, there was some rhetoric to that effect from both the previous Government and the current Government that perhaps we would learn the lessons and that we had learned who was important, who was essential, what was the front line that protected us all and that Covid might be the springboard for a different type of future in which we would bail out and support the things that really mattered when the chips were down and we would recognise the critical importance of our front-line health workers and of supporting workers' incomes and jobs when things got tough economically. That was the rhetoric; the new normal. We were not going back to the old normal; we were going forward to the new normal. However, it has not taken long to revert to type.
The best example of that concerns health workers. As the applause of March and April fades into memory, what does the Government do to reward the front-line healthcare workers?
Where was the bonus payment that some countries gave to their healthcare workers for their extraordinary sacrifice and work in the face of the pandemic, which they continue to do? This is not history because they will be doing it again in January. Owing to the Government's Covid strategy we will be facing into further spikes in January and those front-line healthcare workers will be faced with similar situations in January and February. They got no bonus and they are still working free hours under the Croke Park agreement.
The other issue is the student nurses and midwives who were briefly rewarded with the healthcare assistant pay rate and then had the rug pulled from under them when, in the quiet of the summer in August, the Government stopped paying them. These are, by the way, the student and nurses we are going to need again when the almost inevitable spike in Covid-19 cases comes in January and February and infection rates among healthcare workers start to climb again, and the numbers are already shockingly high. We will be needing those student nurses and midwives to hold together our health services but the Government expects them to do it for free. To my mind, that is a scandal. It speaks to a longer term problem. If there was any real learning of the lessons of the last while, it is that we need permanent increases in the capacity of our health service, which is chronically understaffed and under-resourced. To achieve that, we should be treating our healthcare workers with the utmost respect, financially rewarding and remunerating them for the work they do and trying to encourage them not to leave this country, as 71% of student nurses and midwives are likely to do because the conditions in which they have to work are so poor, their pay is poor and the cost of accommodation is out of reach in terms of the salaries they receive. It seems those lessons are not learned.
It is particularly worth dwelling on these appropriations. This morning, the Tánaiste referred to those people who come over the hill to Debenhams workers and tell them there is a pot of money that does not exist. This is such a pot of money. It is massive. It is an enormous pot of money, but one that provides for grossly inflated salaries for taoisigh, special advisers, Ministers, Ministers of State and people in State agencies earning hundreds of thousands of euro, but nothing for nurses except, perhaps, a €50 allowance. That is the reality in terms of what is provided for in this Appropriation Bill. The cost that we bear from an Exchequer point of view in regard to HAP is shocking, as pointed out by the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service, IGEES, report of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It is massively higher than if we were delivering public housing directly, and yet the Government continues along that path and we continue to allow people to be evicted, as some people will be over the coming weeks because the Government has lifted the eviction ban. When those people are evicted because the vulture landlords want to raise rents and make more profit, they will turn up at the local authority offices looking for homeless HAP, which will cost a hell of a lot more. It seems the promise that we were going to learn the existential lessons of the year of Covid for the future have been quickly forgotten as we move towards the beginning of 2021.